JFS mentorship program helps to shape the next generation of New Americans
By Stacey Dresner
SPRINGFIELD – As an assistant U.S. Attorney in Springfield, Steven Breslow is always hard at work prosecuting federal cases in the public interest.
But he’s not too busy to give back to the community.
This fall he began volunteering for Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts’ Refugee Youth Engagement and Mentoring Program. He is now a mentor to a 17-year-old boy from Zambia.
Designed for young people between the ages of 15 and 24 who have been in the country for less than five years, the goal of the mentor program is to “broaden their exposure to college and to potential careers; to form connections with Americans; to improve their English; and to provide more support for young people who need some kind of case management — support beyond what they might be getting through the school system,” explained Janet Kaplan-Bucciarelli, career development specialist at JFS.
Steve Breslow was matched up with his “mentee” because the young man is interested in becoming a lawyer.
When the two first met at the Federal Courthouse in Springfield, Breslow came out, shook the teen’s hand and said, ‘I’m so happy to be your mentor.”
“It was a pretty awesome moment for the student to walk into this imposing building and meet this DA,” recalled Kaplan-Bucciarelli. “When we left, the student said, ‘I think my life just changed.’ It was pretty powerful.”
To date, JFS has matched 14 teens with 13 mentors from around the community. (One mentor works with two brothers).
“Our Refugee Youth Engagement and Mentor program was developed to open up the world of possibilities and opportunities for our youth by engaging them though a mentorship experience,” said Maxine J. Stein, president and CEO of JFS. “Their mentors have been instrumental in guiding our young New Americans on their path to become active and engaged members of our community. The breadth of our volunteer mentor cohort is as stunning as the desire of our young people to succeed.”
Breslow says he became a mentor as a way to engage in tikkun olam.
“I hope I am making a difference,” he said. “I encourage others to participate because we really are playing a critical role in helping shape the next generation of New Americans.”
A big transition
The mentor program got its start last summer when JFS ran a Summer Engagement Academy for 18 refugee youths from families that JFS works, as well as from schools in Springfield and West Springfield. They hired Shan Maung, 23, a former refugee from Burma as Refugee Youth Fellow, to staff the program.
Maung was just two years old when his family fled violence in his native country. For the next 12 years he and his family lived in a refugee camp in Thailand. One of his sisters and her husband came to the U.S. and in 2009 Shan, his parents and his other sister were able to come as well.
“When we came here it was such a big transition,” he recalls. “At school I had to catch up with all the students. I had no friends. I had no one to help me because of the language barrier. It was tough but I never gave up.”
Next fall Maung will graduate from Springfield Technical Community College, where he is studying social work. He also works for the West Springfield school system’s special education program, teaching life skills to adult students.
He applied to become the Refugee Youth Fellow so that he could give back.
“I’ve been in their shoes. I know how they feel to be new to the country and not to know what to do.”
He added that it was the “best summer job he has ever had.”
“I loved it. I was able to go each day and it was like I was their big brother. It was great to help them and answer any questions they had or give them advice. We were like a big family. They still text me and ask me questions.”
Maung and Kaplan-Bucciarelli led the teens through two three-week summer sessions focusing on leadership development. Field trips nearly every weekday introduced the student to colleges and other institutions in the area.
“The students went to Springfield Technical Community, Holyoke Community College. They went to the YMCA, just to learn about working out and talking about fitness and nutrition a little bit,” Kaplan-Bucciarelli said. “We did some community service each week at the Open Pantry in Springfield, which was a really powerful experience for a lot of them because they had been used to receiving services. It was really kind of an empowering thing for them to be doing in-takes for people, seeing Americans who are struggling and being able to help them.”
The teens also went to STEAMporio, a Springfield makerspace, to learn about 3D printing and computer design and manufacturing; and participated in afternoon communication workshops where they role-played, did team-building exercises, opened up about their feelings and talked about their futures.
“It’s a phenomenal program,” Maung said. “Back when I came here, I only had school and home. This program allows these kids to explore and see what is out there for them, and to open up many doors.”
Once the summer program was over, JFS began preparing for the mentoring program.
“We told the kids that in the fall we were going to be matching them up with mentors and it was hard for the kids to understand what that means,” Kaplan-Bucciarelli said. “It was a word they didn’t really understand, a concept they didn’t understand. So then in the fall, we started recruiting mentors and when I reached back out to the kids I had to explain to them what it means and why an adult would want to do it. And what they – the mentee — can get out of it. Then they were like, ‘Yeah, I want to do that.’”
JFS then started doing outreach, matching mentors and matches.
“I think there’s a desire on the part of a lot of people in this area to do something about the refugee immigrant situation in the country and in this area, and so people really did step forward,” Kaplan-Bucciarelli said.
Mentors must meet with their young counterparts six hours a month, whether that is all at once or a few hours a week.
“It definitely is a commitment, but the goal is really to develop a relationship and a friendship with this mentee,” Kaplan-Bucciarelli said. “So, this means keeping in touch with them every week, even if you are not seeing them.
“We definitely looked at gender,” she added, “matching men with younger men and women with younger women. When a student had a particular interest we tried to make that kind of match.”
For Lichom Mesfin, a 19-year-old from Ethiopia, the program sought a strong female figure. They matched her with Rabbi Amy Katz of Temple Beth El in Springfield.
“Amy Katz is a mother, a leader, and an amazing person,” said Lichom.
“…It is important for Lichom to see a strong, independent woman, who is a leader of a community, who runs her own household,” Katz said. “I think that role-modeling is important. But her own mother is clearly a very strong woman – she left Ethiopia – so she has strong women in her life. But I am a strong woman who knows this culture.”
Lichom’s mother is indeed strong; she is the one that insisted the family leave Ethiopia for the U.S.
“My mother wanted to come to this country so we can have better life and opportunities. I didn’t want to come because I didn’t want to leave what I knew for the unknown,” Lichom admitted. “I miss all the things back home but I am grateful for what I have now.”
JFS was the agency that helped Lichom and her family – her mother and two smaller siblings – to resettle in their new home. But for a young teenager like Lichom it wasn’t easy.
“Life was definitely hard because everything that we were exposed to was unknown,” she remembered.
Rabbi Katz decided to become a mentor after giving her first day Rosh Hashana sermon last September.
“It was about the need for us as Jews to go extend ourselves to the Jewish community and to the larger world, and that we need to balance a commitment to the universal and the particular,” Rabbi Katz explained. “The sermon came because I feel like some members of the American Jewish community focus on the universal and some only focus on the Jews. And I feel like the job of a Conservative Jew is to balance both.”
She soon had lunch with Maxine Stein, a longtime friend, who told her about JFS’s new Refugee Youth Mentoring Program.
“Maxine puts herself out there,” Rabbi Katz said. “Talking to her made me say, ‘I can live better; I can do a better job in this world.’”
Katz soon signed up to be a mentor.
“I felt like, you know, I have to put my money where my mouth is,” Katz said. “I don’t just give my sermons, I try to live them.”
Now she meets every two weeks or so with Lichon. Because they are both busy – Katz with her congregation and Lichom as a senior at Springfield Central High School — the two tend to get together around every other week.
Katz said her main responsibility as a mentor is “being an example; I think it is about knowing the system a little bit.”
Katz helped Lichom study for her learner’s permit and has taken her to the Springfield Jewish Community Center to work out in the gym.
“We go to the gym, go driving and talk about life,” Lichom said. “She is a person that I can talk to or learn from and I am learning from her all the time.”
“She’s come to the house a few times,” Katz said. “We went to the grocery store, we did some cooking. One time she just came over and met my kids.”
Since Lichon is interested in going to college and getting a good job, Katz put her in contact with a friend who works for a not-for-profit organization called Leaven, which helps young people like Lichon get into college and finds them money to pay for it.
“This young woman is very ambitious, and I want to try to help her achieve her goals,” Katz said.
Rabbi Katz admitted that that being a mentor to a youth who isn’t Jewish was out of her comfort zone.
“My world is the Jewish world, but I realize that we live in a time where I can’t afford to limit myself to the Jewish world.”
Adding that she is not a “rally kind of person” Katz said that mentoring a teen is more in her wheelhouse when it comes to helping refugees. “I realized that my way to change the world is one person at a time. That’s how I operate and that brings meaning to me.”
Giving back to the community
As an assistant U.S. attorney, Steve Breslow has served as a mentor to young attorneys and law students in the past. Working with his teen refugee mentee – who has asked that his name not be published — is different, Breslow said.
“Professionally I mentor many different students who work in the legal offices that I have worked in and I supervise an internship in my office,” he said. “Those students are generally very well-educated, they are American citizens, and they have access to a lot of privilege. In this case, [my mentee] had come to this country only a few years ago having lived his entire life in Zambia. He had had no exposure to English, much less any direct experience with what it was like to live in and grow up in the United States.”
Breslow and his mentee meet regularly. Like Lichom – and most teens – one of the young man’s goals is to drive a car.
“So far I have helped him prepare to obtain a learner’s permit, helped him study for the test and started to teach him to drive,” Breslow said. “I’ve accompanied him on job searches. And most recently I took him to a Super Bowl party. He had never been to a Super Bowl party or seen an American football game actually. We also spend time talking to each other and I encourage him to email with me so he can practice reading and writing.”
Because the teen is interested in being a lawyer, he and Breslow have had some conversations about the law and Breslow is guiding him toward his goal.
“I have gone to school with him to speak to his guidance counselor about what he needs to do to get into and to succeed in college,” he said.
Like Breslow, Sham Manka is dedicated to guiding the young woman she is mentoring.
Manka was 24 in 2010 when she herself immigrated to the U.S. from Tanzania. She attended Bay Path University, where she got her bachelor degree in business administration and management and her master’s in communications and information management. She later participated in Tech Foundry, a professional training program in Springfield.
While at Bay Path, advisors and teachers would have new students from Tanzania go to her for help in adapting to the U.S. She also worked as an administrative assistant in the college’s career and life planning center. With that experience and as someone who knows the struggles involved in coming to a new country, Manka was a natural choice to mentor Vanessa Asifiwe, a teen from Kenya.
“It’s something I have always wanted to do – to give back to the community, because I wouldn’t have been able to get where I am if people hadn’t helped me, taught me and mentored me,” she said.
Both Manka and Vanessa speak Swahili, which makes them a good match. But Manka insists that the two speak English together.
“To speak English really, really well you have to speak it a lot of the time, so most of the time I converse with her in English. If there is something that I try to communicate to her that she doesn’t understand and says, ‘What do you mean?’ Then I sometimes explain it in Swahili,” Manka said.
Manka said that besides pushing Vanessa to do well in school so that she can get into college, she encourages her to be confident.
“She is very shy and very, very quiet…but I push her so she can express herself. I tell her she doesn’t have to be quiet and that when she talks to people she should look them in the eyes.”
Manka, who is now married with an eight-month-old daughter, feels that by modeling her own experiences, she can help Vanessa be a success story.
“Yes, that is my goal, for her to be successful,” Manka said. “I told her I know it is hard sometimes but you have to stick to your goals, even if sometimes you feel distracted and sometimes you feel like you want to give up,’” she said. “I say, ‘I know it can be hard and I know where you are coming from, but you have to stay focused.’”
JFS is still looking for more mentors – particularly males — for its refugee youths.
Rabbi Amy Katz pointed out that the immigrant story is one we all can relate to – and should not forget.
“All four of my grandparents came to this country as immigrants. They had no one when they came. However, they made it, and they made it because people helped them in some way,” Katz said. “Lichom’s family came here because life in Ethiopia wasn’t good. So we have a duty to help these folks find a better life. I want to do everything in my power to help Lichom be in a position to give to others and to help her find her way.”
Main Photo: Rabbi Amy Katz of Temple Beth El, left, is a JFS mentor and a strong role model for teen refugee Lichom Mesfin.