Mindy Berkowitz, Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley executive director, speaks at a press conference on Sept. 13 with Santa Clara County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg (directly behind her) and others. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)
Mindy Berkowitz, Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley executive director, speaks at a press conference on Sept. 13 with Santa Clara County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg (directly behind her) and others. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)

Silicon Valley Jewish agency receives big funding boost to aid Afghan refugees

UPDATED: Sept. 14, 12 p.m.

Anticipating a rush of refugees over the next year escaping Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley has secured additional financial assistance to its agency from Santa Clara County to help bolster resettlement services.

On Tuesday morning, county supervisors unanimously approved a request from JFS-SV, along with the U.S.-based global relief agency International Rescue Committee, to increase their annual contracts from $185,000 each to $250,000. The request for additional funding — introduced by county supervisors Susan Ellenberg and Otto Lee — will also provide an additional, one-time injection of up to $750,000 that will be shared.

“This is a moral obligation for all of us,” said Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz from Congregation Emeth in Morgan Hill during Tuesday’s public comment.

Since the end of July, the Los Gatos–based JFS-SV has resettled 30 refugees from Afghanistan who arrived with Special Immigrant Visas, which are given to interpreters, translators and others who helped the United States during the 20-year war.

More money is needed, said Mindy Berkowitz, JFS-SV executive director since 2003, because her agency anticipates resettling around 300 Afghans in the Silicon Valley area within the next year. It’s a stark contrast to the 50 refugees in total, from around the world, that the agency helped relocate last year.

“They risked their lives for us,” Ellenberg, who represents Santa Clara County’s District 4, said during a morning press conference outside the county’s administrative offices on Sept. 13. Last month, Ellenberg participated in a climate change protest organized by a Jewish faith group.

“And now, their safety depends on us,” she said.

While the annual county funding goes toward English classes and career counseling services provided by JFS, the extra funding will be put toward rent and transportation costs, among other needs.

“These refugees are coming,” Berkowitz told J. “This is our county stepping up.”

A man holds a certificate acknowledging his work for Americans (center) as hundreds of people gather outside the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 17, 2021. (Photo/RNS-AP)
A man holds a certificate acknowledging his work for Americans (center) as hundreds of people gather outside the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 17, 2021. (Photo/RNS-AP)

Berkowitz believes that the additional funding is an investment that will ultimately help save taxpayer money. Refugees, upon arriving in the country, receive government benefits such as food stamps, and Berkowitz said her agency offers services that will lead recipients to financial independence.

“Do we want them to be successful, or do we want them to be a burden?” she asked rhetorically.

One of the major needs for the incoming refugees is housing assistance. On the State Department’s “Resettlement Options” page for Afghans and Iraqis, it warns that cities in California “are very expensive” and that it “can be difficult to find reasonable housing and employment.” The median cost of rent in San Jose is around $2,200, despite a small drop last year because of pandemic-related pressures.

At a press conference on Monday, Berkowitz said the “No. 1 focus” of her agency is helping refugees find housing at below-market rate. JFS has created a six-person team for this purpose and is reaching out to anyone in the community who can offer in-law units or other suitable options, and to landlords who are waiving employment requirements in their housing applications.

The agency also is finding host families who house refugees until a more permanent solution is identified.

“We’re finding all kinds of creative solutions,” Berkowitz said. “It’s not easy. We need everyone’s support on this one.”

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler is a staff writer at J. You can reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ggreschler.