“Zander,” who fled from draconian anti-gay laws in his home country of Uganda, now resides in Berkeley. (Photo/Sophie Constantinou)
“Zander,” who fled from draconian anti-gay laws in his home country of Uganda, now resides in Berkeley. (Photo/Sophie Constantinou)

Families with hearts of gold are helping us resettle refugees at JFCS East Bay

Jewish Family and Community Services East Bay was founded in 1877 as the Daughters of Israel Relief Society, with a focus on helping vulnerable women, children and community members.

Early on in our history, we developed expertise in resettling refugees in the East Bay — Jews coming from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century, earthquake survivors coming from San Francisco in 1906, Jews escaping Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Holocaust survivors after the war and Jews fleeing anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union.

Today our resettlement program serves refugees from around the world, particularly focusing on those who have experienced persecution based on their religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Most of the refugees we serve are Muslim. For example, we resettle Afghan refugees who served as translators for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Because of their cooperation with the U.S. military, these brave young men and their families are now being targeted by the Taliban and other fundamentalists. These families are often highly traumatized and need intensive, individualized support from our Dari/Farsi-speaking case managers and psychologist to start their new lives in our community.

In addition to Afghans, we are also resettling Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians, and people from African countries and the former Soviet Union.

JFCS East Bay is also the lead organization in the United States resettling LGBT individuals persecuted for their sexual orientation or gender identity. These refugees come mostly from Africa, the Middle East and the former Soviet Union.

Since September 2015, the world’s attention has been drawn to the plight of refugees, and our resettlement work has become even more vital. JFCS East Bay is blessed to be part of a community that wants to open doors and provide sanctuary.

We know what it feels like to be religious outsiders. This is our central story, our duty, and a full expression of our Jewish values.

Since the election of Donald Trump and, in particular, since his anti-refugee executive order was issued in January, we have been overwhelmed with offers of support from community members wanting to volunteer their time and talent.

We’ve received messages like this one: “In 1939, my great-grandparents sponsored the visas of three young men who were fleeing persecution in Germany. I would like to work directly with a refugee family so they too know they are welcome in our country.”

Many of these volunteers draw on their Jewish faith in reaching out to refugees, including one rabbi who said, “We’ve had family members who have relied on the help of strangers. We know what it feels like to be religious outsiders. This is our central story, our duty, and a full expression of our Jewish values.”

To more deeply engage our community, JFCS East Bay has developed partnerships with many of the local synagogues. Congregants come together to form welcome groups around each refugee family, creating small villages of support. With training and support from our volunteer services staff, the welcome groups offer practical help and friendship to newcomers. We now have 22 welcome groups from various synagogues, all of them working actively to support refugees.

Because housing is extraordinarily expensive in the Bay Area, many community members have also stepped up to offer hosted housing to new refugees.

For example, one Jewish family has welcomed an Afghan family of nine into its home. Another Jewish family has made the remarkably generous commitment to house a Syrian family of four for an entire year. Along with a welcome group, the host family also helped the father of the family find employment and secured a pro-bono space in a wonderful neighborhood preschool for the oldest child. The children became fast friends and the housing host, Lilah Kendall, said, “My dad is a Holocaust survivor from Germany. He was 13 when he alone got on a train to France. He came to the U.S. when he was 16.” Lilah felt compelled to help in some way.

Despite the desperation, intense grief and trauma that refugees experience on their journeys to their new land and lives, we have seen glimpses of shining silver linings. Refugees are resilient and our community is warm and embracing. We have seen new interfaith coalitions and alliances sprout up to support refugees, building bridges between faith communities in the service of the vulnerable.

A particularly beautiful example of this was when the local Franciscan monastery responded to an urgent appeal we made for housing refugees. It is a powerful alliance indeed that a Catholic Franciscan monastery is working with a Jewish agency to support Muslim refugees. (HIAS has made a video about this; see below.)

Active compassion requires of us to stretch in completely unforeseeable ways. Who knew we could love strangers so deeply and receive so many gifts and blessings? Who knew I could adopt an African LGBT refugee and take him so deeply into my heart and family? Who knew we could have so many opportunities to put our cherished values into action and teach those values to our children?

Precisely because the refugee experience is so challenging the rewards are so treasured. This is the America we see day in and day out: gritty, hardworking, compassionate, generous and warm. And welcoming.

This essay is from the Peoplehood Papers, published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education, and was republished by eJewishPhilanthropy. It appears here with permission.

Amy Weiss
Amy Weiss

Amy Weiss is the director of refugee and immigrant services at Jewish Family and Community Services East Bay.