Archive for : Refugee Resettlement

Lessons From Our Ancestors: A Refugee Story (Mordy Walfish)

In light of the recently updated ban ordered by President Trump, refugees and immigrants remain at the top of the news cycle. The stories of people coming into our country today, many of whom are fleeing harsh conditions at home, are familiar to Jewish Americans. It was not long ago, after all, that many of our collective Jewish grandparents or parents (or we ourselves) set off to America seeking a better or safer life.

In the spirit of supporting today’s refugees and immigrants, Repair the World’s Vice President for Programs, Mordy Walfish shared his grandparents’ remarkable refugee story, as well as the lessons we can take from remembering the words from Exodus 23: “Also thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Can you share your family’s refugee/immigrant story?
I’m the grandkid of four refugees. My dad’s parents fled Eastern Europe between the two World Wars – one settled in Toronto and the other in Detroit. My mother’s parents are Holocaust survivors. I’ve always connected most to my grandmother’s refugee story. She grew up in Poland and spent her teenage years in ghettos and camps, finally being liberated from Bergen-Belsen in 1945 at the age of 18.
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Repair Interview: Martin Storrow of Keys for Refugees

Finding out that there are 60 million refugees and displaced people around the globe can be overwhelming. It can be terribly difficult to know how to help, or even where to begin a conversation. That’s why Martin Storrow and Rachel Brandt founded Keys for Refugees – a brand new, grassroots campaign to help raise awareness about the world’s refugee population. Their idea is simple, but profound: keys are a symbol of home, security, and comfort. And they can help to “unlock” important stories.

Through Keys for Refugees, people can purchase red keys for themselves or friends that serve as a reminder and a starting point for conversation. A portion of the proceeds from the keys goes to HIAS, the oldest refugee resettlement organization in America, and Repair the World’s partner in our #SupportforRefugees campaign. We recently spoke with Storrow to find out more about the inspiration behind Keys for Refugees, how people and organizations are using their keys, and how you can get involved with this inspiring movement.

Can you tell me a bit more about the inspiration behind Keys For Refugees?
I was in Europe around the time the Syrian refugee crisis was reaching a tipping point, and the things I saw really affected me. I’ll never forget the images of families sleeping on train station floors, living their lives very publicly with nowhere to go. When I came home, Rachel and I started having conversations about what we could do to help the 60 million people who are currently displaced around the world.

The more we spoke about this with our families and friends, the more we began to realize how powerful a conversation can be. We started Keys For Refugees with the simple idea that a key can unlock a conversation, a conversation can lead to action, and a series of actions can change the world.

How did you decide to donate the proceeds to HIAS?
We believe that every person should have a place to call home. We see the 60 million displaced people around the world as individuals – each with dreams, each hoping not just to survive, but to contribute. HIAS not only helps to provide relief to those who are displaced, but also helps to resettle refugees and ensure that they have a support system so they can thrive. We love that their mission is rooted in Jewish values, and were really impressed by the HIAS/Repair the World #SupportForRefugees partnership. There are many wonderful organizations that are supporting refugees around the world, but we were excited to make HIAS our first partner in this campaign.

Can you share a story that demonstrates the impact of your work?
The campaign is still new (we just had our pre-launch last month), but we’re already seeing an impressive response from those in our networks and in the Jewish community. We were really moved by the connections people were making to Passover. One organization, for example (The Well in Detroit), set fifty red keys on their seder table so they could start conversations about those making their own modern day journeys to freedom. That was really inspiring.

What’s the best way for people to get involved?
The simplest thing you can do is visit our website to buy a red key or gift one to a friend. We have ‘key’ facts there too, so you can start unlocking conversations – whether in-person or by posting in social media. This is a huge humanitarian challenge, and it can certainly feel daunting, but big change often starts with small actions. We’re at the beginning of something special, and we’re excited to bring people together to raise awareness, spread hope, and help build a movement.

Turn the Tables: A Refugee-Focused Seder in Kansas City

This interview is being shared as part of #SupportforRefugees, Repair the World’s campaign focusing on the global refugee crisis. All across the country this Passover, people found ways to share refugees’ stories during their seders and to talk about the issues they face. Using resources and materials from Repair the World’s Turn the Tables project, they were able to add additional meaning and spark important conversations at their tables. Here, Kansas City resident, Malinda Kimmel, talks about her experience hosting a Turn the Tables seder for friends and family from a wide range of political backgrounds.

What inspired you to host a refugee-focused Passover seder?
For me and my family, this seder made sense. Refugee issues are something we are passionate about, and Pesach is a story of leaving one country for another to come to freedom and safety. Also, three of our seder participants work at JVS Kansas City, an organization that works to resettle new refugees into our community. The seder allowed us to share with others the importance of refugee resettlement in our community.

How did you weave refugee issues into the seder?
We began our seder with the Turn the Tables guided discussion. We made sure all guests understood our seder was to be a safe space for open discussion and respectful conversation. Our guests really jumped in and opened up, allowing us to talk about the connection between Jews in Egypt and others now who flee their countries for freedom and safety.
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Turn the Tables: A Refugee-Focused Passover Seder for 54 in Portland

This interview is being shared as part of #SupportforRefugees, Repair the World’s campaign focusing on the global refugee crisis. All across the country this Passover, people found ways to share refugees’ stories during their seders and to talk about the issues they face. Using resources from Repair the World’s Turn the Tables project, and nourishment support from OneTable, they were able to add additional meaning and spark important conversations at their tables. Here, Portland, Oregon resident Debbie Frank talks about her experience hosting a Turn the Table seder for more than 50 people in conjunction with the Meetup group PDX MOTs!

1. What inspired you to host a refugee-focused seder and dinner?
Over the years, the Passover seder has become my favorite Jewish holiday experience. My family in Alabama always uses the same traditional Haggadah, which I still very much cherish. But, it wasn’t until I moved to Portland a few years ago that I experienced my first Seder at a friend’s house with a Haggadah that was completely custom for the kids. Since this year was my first time to tackle putting on a seder myself (for 54 adults no less), I wanted to honor tradition while melding in something unexpected.
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Repair Interview: Maria Fedore on Helping Teachers Help Refugee Students

This interview is being shared as part of #SupportforRefugees, Repair the World’s campaign focusing on the global refugee crisis.

Being a teacher is a heroic challenge, no matter who your students are or what you’re teaching. But imagine walking into a classroom where several, or even most, of your students come from refugee backgrounds. Knowing how to bring these students together and meet the needs of such a diverse classroom is an almost unimaginable task. But in Tulsa, Oklahoma, an organization called Tulsa Newcomer Services is working to make it a bit easier.

Through trainings, professional development, and ongoing support, TNS “empowers teachers to provide an excellent education to their culturally and linguistically diverse learners.” Repair the World recently spoke with Executive Director, Maria Fedore, to find out more about Tulsa’s refugee community and how she helps students – and teachers – thrive.

What was the inspiration behind Tulsa Newcomers Services?
Our inspiration is our students. In Tulsa, the population of refugees is large and continuing to grow. Many of the students have experienced long stays in refugee camps, have had limited access to education, lack language fluency, and have experienced discrimination in school settings. Meanwhile, all students deserve to have access to education and a chance to thrive. We recognized the importance of supporting teachers who are working with these culturally and linguistically diverse students, and aim to help them meet their unique needs.
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Repair Interview: Zhanna Veyts on Being a Refugee, Then Helping Others with HIAS

This interview is being shared as part of #SupportforRefugees, Repair the World’s Passover campaign focusing on the global refugee crisis.

What if you had the opportunity to give back to someone or something who made a profound difference in your life? For Zhanna Veyts, that is exactly what happened. In 1989, when she was still a child, Veyts and her parents left the Soviet Union for America with the help of HIAS – the oldest international migration and refugee resettlement agency in the U.S. (and our partner in this month’s #SupportforRefugees campaign.)

Today, Veyts works for HIAS supporting refugees going through the same transitions she went through nearly 30 years ago. Repair the World recently spoke to Veyts to find out how her experience shapes her work and how, despite our differences, we all pretty much want the same thing.

Can you tell me a bit about your own refugee experience, and how it impacts your work at HIAS?
I’m originally from Ukraine and came to America with my parents in 1989 with help from HIAS. We went through Vienna and Italy like hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jewish refugees at the time. We had to figure out if we would be able to go to America or Israel. When we arrived in Los Angeles, our experience was not unlike everything that refugees experience today. You get an apartment, it gets furnished, there are social programs, you enroll in school or get a job, you have to learn English, and life starts anew. You get here and very quickly you’re on your own.

The process is quite complicated, but HIAS has been doing it for 130 years. I realized later that some of these big decisions that made a huge impact in my life at different crossroads were directly related to HIAS. It is so interesting to be working on the other side of it now.

What did it feel like to be an adolescent going through this experience?
When we left, we thought we would never see my grandparents again. That happens to so many people today. We did not know that years later, the situation with the Soviet Union would change and we’d be able to bring them here. We really thought we were saying goodbye, and that was really rough.

I also remember the dramatic difference between my life in Ukraine before the Iron Curtain fell, and what I found in Europe. It was Christmastime when we made it to Vienna and Italy. Everything was sparkly and clean, it felt like Disneyland. Before the Internet and with no access to Western television, I’d had no vision of what to expect when I left. Arriving there, I had a definite, “I’m not in Kansas anymore” moment. Soon after we came to America we moved to Los Angeles, and I attended public school the first year. I remember it feeling so much bigger and more diverse than anything I’d experienced. A year later I transferred to a Jewish day school and remember being really aware that there were differences between me and the other kids.

How did you end up working for HIAS?
It was kind of serendipitous. Going to Jewish day school and Jewish sleep away camps had a big part in shaping who I am. In college I attended Hillel events and went on service trips. The service part and social justice part of Judaism always made a lot of sense to me as a person from somewhere else who had been included. When I moved to New York, I got a job at the JDC working for their non-sectarian disaster relief department. I found the work really interesting, and it was in-line with my sense of Judaism to help others beyond our own community. When I got the job here three years ago, everything came full circle.

What do you do at HIAS?
I work in communications and digital media, running social media and our blog. I think of these things as different platforms for story telling. The stories of the people HIAS works with are what makes this work really compelling. This organization facilitates this completely transformative shift in people’s lives. I experienced that myself. I’m not going to sugar coat it, it’s the beginning of a whole journey that people go on. And it’s difficult and hard for many people. But so many people finally find safety and freedom.

I’ve had the opportunity and privilege to meet a lot of people HIAS works with in different capacities. I’ve seen programs in Africa and met Afghanis, Iraqis, and people from so many different corners of the world who all have their own stories and experiences. But the majority of them, when we ask them what’s the best thing about getting to America, say “feeling safe.” When it comes down to it, people really all want the same thing. They just want to have a nice, warm, safe environment for their families.

Find out more about HIAS’ work, and Repair the World and HIAS’ #SupportforRefugees campaign.

Photo: Veyts (second from right) making a home visit to a family of Ethiopian refugees living in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo credit: Glenna Gordon/HIAS

Repair Inteview: Ruben Chandrasekar on Helping Refugees in Baltimore

This interview is being shared as part of #SupportforRefugees, Repair the World’s Passover campaign focusing on the global refugee crisis.

Imagine leaving everything and everyone you know, and starting life over from scratch. For the millions of refugees around the world who are forced to flee war and persecution in their home countries, this unimaginable situation becomes everyday reality.

As someone who immigrated to the United States as a teenager, Ruben Chandrasekar personally understands the challenges that come with being uprooted. And his experiences drive his work as Executive Director of the Baltimore chapter of International Rescue Committee (IRC), an organization that helps refugees rebuild their lives. Repair the World recently spoke with Chandrasekar about IRC’s refugee resettlement work in Baltimore, how volunteers can get involved, and his thoughts on how the Jewish community can make a difference in the lives of today’s refugees. (Spoiler alert: it involves Albert Einstetin.)

How did you get involved with refugee work?
I was born in Chennai, India and moved to the US with my mom when I was 14. I lived in a small town in Upstate New York, and was the first non-white kid in the school. I faced a lot of challenges and discrimination as a student. My mom, who was a prominent nurse in India, couldn’t find work as a nurse until she passed the board exam. She studied for the boards while working as a home health aide. I remember driving her to someone’s home to take care of them once. An elderly gentleman opened the door, took a look at her, and said, “We don’t want your kind in our house.”
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