Re-settling in: East Bay JFCS helps refugees build new lives

A year after escaping to the Bay Area with his family, Nazir Bidar knows that he, his wife and newborn daughter are safe. But he worries about his relatives back in Afghanistan.

“I can’t sleep,” said Bidar, who now lives in Concord. “I just think about them, about bad things going on. I tried my best to get my [entire] family here, but I couldn’t do it. They’re in danger because of me.”

Afghan refugee Shamsuddin Haji Awliyaqul (standing) with JFCS resettlement case manager Mahboba Satar. Photo/susan freundlich

Bidar, 26, worked for nearly five years as an interpreter for the U.S. Department of Defense in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital. Using the English he learned in school, he helped U.S. officials train Afghan military and police and worked on counternarcotics programs. The way Bidar saw it, the Americans were there to help, and it was a good job. But it also made him a target. He told friends and even relatives that he was working at a bank or with his brother’s video production business — anything but the American government.

“Most people never wanted the U.S. government to be there,” Bidar said. “You know how many interpreters are being beheaded every year or every day? They are kidnapped, they are killed, or their families are killed.”

Bidar is among thousands of interpreters from Afghanistan and Iraq whose work with the U.S. government put them in danger. He came to the U.S. on a special immigrant visa and his case was handled by HIAS, one of nine government-sanctioned refugee resettlement agencies; from there he was referred to Jewish Family & Children’s Services of the East Bay, a local HIAS affiliate. JFCS staff helped Bidar find an apartment, enroll his family in government benefits and connect with health care providers in the Concord area.

Founded as Daughters of Israel Relief Society in 1877 to help local Jews in need, JFCS/East Bay began to help resettle refugees fleeing Europe in the 1930s. After the Jewish refugee crises abated toward the end of the century, the agency decided to turn its attention to non-Jewish refugee populations. In the last year and a half, it has worked with a surge of Afghans coming to the Bay Area under the special visas.

Nazir Badar, 26, Afghan refugee now living in the East Bay photo/courtesy nazir badar

“As Jews, having the experience of being refugees, it’s close to our hearts,” said Amy Weiss, director of refugee and immigrant services.

The world has been made vividly aware of the particular plight of Syrian refugees, with constant jarring images of desperate men, women and children seeking safety in Europe. With more than 11 million Syrians displaced by the 4-year civil war and a record number of nearly 60 million refugees worldwide, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the global community is struggling to address a growing crisis.

A solution will require action by world leaders and decisive measures by the nations of Europe. In the meantime, a number of American Jewish agencies are continuing work they’ve been doing for well over 100 years: helping new refugees find homes, jobs, schools and medical care when they arrive on U.S. soil.

“We’ll continue to honor our commitment to our founding values and Jewish historical experiences that lead us toward welcoming the stranger in our own time,” said JFCS executive director Avi Rose.

Like many JFCS organizations across the country (which are independent but share similar missions), the East Bay agency continued to work with Jews fleeing persecution through the last great wave of refugees in the 1980s and ’90s from the former Soviet Union.

A Mother’s Day celebration for Afghan families hosted by JFCS/East Bay in 2011 photo/anne hamersky

Following that final push, many JFCS agencies ended their resettlement services to focus on other aid work. But JFCS/East Bay took a different path, turning to help non-Jewish refugees and asylum-seekers from around the world remake their lives in the Bay Area.

“We had the very rich experience of resettling people who were fleeing religious and other kinds of persecution, and we wanted to continue to do that work,” Rose said. “We found it to be a strong and powerful reflection of the values upon which this agency was founded. Even if the refugees are not Jewish, this is very Jewish work.”

Likewise, in 2000 HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) decided to expand its work to include non-Jewish refugees. Founded in New York in 1881 to help Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe, HIAS continued to assist Jewish refugees to America throughout the 20th century.

Now HIAS is an official U.S. resettlement agency, along with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and six others. As cases make their way through the system and refugee visas get approved, families are assigned to one of the resettlement agencies to help them transition to life in the United States. The agencies, in turn, transfer the cases to local affiliates in the areas where the refugees move (most of them have to have a U.S. friend or family member already, which determines where they settle).

In the last year, JFCS/East Bay has seen a dramatic increase in the number of refugees coming through its agency. It used to settle about 30 a year, but last year that number jumped to 97, Rose said. Most are from Afghanistan, but the agency also has helped refugees from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Bosnia, Cambodia, Congo, Uganda, Burundi and the former Soviet Union.

JFCS/East Bay staff (from left) Razia Iqbal, Yasamin Taher and Randa Saifeddin photo/david a.m. wilensky

This year, JFCS expects to aid 140 refugees, about 85 percent from Afghanistan. The increase largely is due to a surge of visas being approved under the special immigrant visa program for Afghans who worked for the U.S. government. JFCS has hired staff to manage the surge; the 12 working in the refugee program include three native Afghans and one native Syrian.

“We stretch ourselves, and everyone ends up benefiting,” Rose said.

The U.S. currently caps refugee visas at 70,000 a year, but the Obama administration recently announced it would increase that cap to 100,000 annually by 2017. The increase, as well as a recent announcement that the U.S. would accept 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year, is intended as a response to the mounting humanitarian crisis. (Only 1,500 Syrian refugees have been admitted to the U.S. since the start of the Syrian war in 2011.) But many advocates say the numbers are still insufficient; HIAS has called upon the Obama administration to provide 100,000 visas to Syrian refugees alone. Rose said JFCS/East Bay is ready and willing to accept any Syrian refugees that HIAS sends its way.

Amy Weiss, director of refugee and immigrant services at JFCS/East Bay photo/david a.m. wilensky

The number of Syrian refugees allowed into the United States “needs to be way more,” said Randa Saifeddin, a case manager for JFCS/East Bay who works with Arabic- and English-speaking refugees. Many of her clients are Iraqi; her job includes   everything from helping them find schools to driving them to medical appointments.

Saifeddin, 42, is Syrian; she first came to the United States in 2002 on a H-1B visa, a work visa for foreign nationals with specialized skills (she’s a trained mechanical engineer). She’s been working with refugees at JFCS/East Bay for more than a year, and with the crisis in Syria worsening, her professional and personal lives have begun to overlap. Her nephew is in a refugee camp in Germany after risking his life fleeing Syria by boat. Her cousin’s son was killed. She was stunned by images of bloodstained floors at Damascus University, where she earned her engineering degree, after it was attacked.

“I couldn’t believe this is the place where I laughed and I danced,” Saifeddin said. “I couldn’t believe what I saw there.”

As recently as 2010, Saifeddin considered moving back to Syria to be closer to her family, a prospect that is now unthinkable. The trauma and loss suffered by Saifeddin’s family is sadly typical for refugees, who are often in need of mental health services by the time they arrive in the United States.

“A lot of them come with a lot of mental health stress, trauma, depression and grieving,” said Razia Iqbal, a clinical psychologist on staff with JFCS/East Bay. “There are people who have been tortured, prosecuted and persecuted.”

JFCS/East Bay staff at HIAS refugee resettlement conference (from left) Razia Iqbal, Amy Weiss and Lila Katz

Iqbal, who was 5 when she came as a refugee from Afghanistan in 1983, provides direct counseling to refugees, trains JFCS and county staff about mental health issues and runs support groups for youth, seniors and parents.

“I’m most proud and happiest about the fact that I’m Muslim and I work at a Jewish agency,” Iqbal said. “I’m proud about what we do. The majority of people we resettle are Muslims. If we as people can be this giving and put our political views aside, I think we can be a really wonderful country.”

JFCS also has a special program for resettling LGBT refugees from Africa and the Middle East who flee persecution based on their sexual orientation. These refugees are some of the most vulnerable because they can’t rely on a support system of other immigrants from their country, due to bias and discrimination. The one Syrian refugee JFCS has resettled thus far was part of that program (see op-ed, page 25), but the agency presumably will settle more Syrians when the U.S. opens its doors more widely.

Other local Jewish agencies are addressing the Syrian refugee crisis in different ways. The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Jewish Community Relations Council have urged support for HIAS and the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, an umbrella group that has raised more than $500,000 for Syrian refugees since May 2014, as has American Jewish World Service, a national group with a San Francisco office. The S.F.-based JFCS also has started a Syrian Refugee Assistance Fund to pay for immediate medical, shelter and food aid, along with long-term assistance to help the refugees relocate to safer parts of the world.

After being in the Bay Area for a year, Bidar says             he feels settled, despite the gnawing worry about the well-being of his family in Afghanistan. His uncle, who moved to the U.S. a dozen years ago, lives a few minutes drive away in Concord. With the help of JFCS, Bidar has moved his family into an apartment, not a small achievement in an area with a soaring cost of living (JFCS helped him stock it with donated furniture). He has a job at a Middle Eastern market and soon will start working at a car dealership. Over time, and with hard work, he hopes to improve his family’s situation.

“It’s a better place for my wife and my child. I can provide better education for her and a good life for her,” Bidar said. “I just feel safe; that’s all I can say.”


Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.