This guest post is being shared as part of #SupportforRefugees, Repair the World’s Passover campaign focusing on the global refugee crisis. It was written by Ya’arah Pinhas and Will Simon, and covers a jam-packed alternative spring break program focused on refugee resettlement, and run by Princeton’s Center for Jewish Life.

Over the recent Spring Break, Princeton’s Center for Jewish Life’s Social Justice Committee led a service learning trip to NYC and NJ exploring refugee resettlement in the area. With an ever increasing number of 60 million internally displaced people, asylum seekers, and refugees worldwide alongside the media’s focus on the Syrian refugee crisis, the committee has focused its efforts on raising awareness on campus and encouraging students to take action on this topic. The trip’s goals were to learn about the process of resettlement of refugees in the US, specifically looking at the services provided to them once they arrive within US borders, and volunteering with organizations that assist refugees newly arrived to the US and advocate on their behalf.

On the first day we visited and volunteered with asylum seekers at Catholic Charities Community Services’ Immigrant and Refugee Services, and helped them with their interviews. We met with two professionals from the Refugee Resettlement Office who highlighted the challenges and promising practices of integrating refugees, specifically focusing on employment services and educational opportunities. We then stopped by Battery Park to get a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty and read Emma Lazarus’ The New Colossus poem and reflect on our families’ immigration stories to the US.

Next we headed to HIAS, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society’s office. HIAS has helped over 4.5 million refugees globally, and we were incredibly grateful to hear from a Jewish organization that specializes in assisting refugees on the ground in 10 countries and in the US through psychological counseling and livelihood trainings. To end the day we had dinner and volunteered by sleeping overnight at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue Men’s Shelter. We shared a lovely meal prepared by volunteers and conversed with the men before going to bed and debriefing about home and comfort.

On Thursday, the group began the day with an early start by closing the shelter after the men left for their daily jobs and routines. We then headed to Brooklyn to volunteer with recent immigrants at the Arab American Family Support Center. Each one of the students assisted a group of 5-6 immigrants with their English skills by having conversations about our hobbies and interests. The immigrants in each person’s group arrived to the US at various times and were all at different journeys in their lives, with kids, single, starting a new job or going to school and being incredibly grateful to be in the US and New York City. The time flew by and the session was over and none of us really wanted to leave this crowded space full of incredible diversity and resilience.

Next we then walked over the Brooklyn Bridge back to Manhattan. We engaged in a short activity where each one of us described our representations of home to one another. We were then off to the UN Refugee Agency office to meet with staff members and learn about the global refugee crisis and the response and assistance the UN provides. Through an engaging conversation and presentation we learned about the durable solutions the UN has identified for refugees: repatriation, local integration and resettlement. We closed the meeting by discussing what we can bring back to campus and how we can advocate on behalf of the 60 million displaced persons.

Our last day brought us back to New Jersey, where we brought together everything we had learned and experienced to welcoming the refugee family from Pakistan to Princeton. We visited Church World Service’s office in Jersey City since they are the resettlement agency assigned in resettling the family. We were impressed by the amount of refugees their one case manager is responsible for and the list on the wall of refugee families they will be welcoming in the next month or two months. Church World
Service has an extensive Immigration and Refugee Program that reiterates the same goal we had been hearing from all the people we met: the aim is to have the refugees be self-sufficient as soon as possible.

If learning about a refugee’s journey in the abstract was enlightening, meeting the refugee family from Pakistan back in Princeton was amazing! They had arrived the night before to the US and the case manager from Church World Service was meeting them for the first time with our group. We were able to participate in the intake step and give the father of the family a short tour of the neighborhood including purchasing milk and bread at the supermarket. Two Princeton students who speak Urdu volunteered to help translate the intake session and assist in filling out important documents. To not overwhelm the family, we ended our visit by making sure that we will help them any way we can including gathering supplies for their new home and helping their daughter learn English.

During the trip we learned so much about the refugee services provided in our backyard and the kinds of challenges refugees across the world face. We will carry these lessons forward both into our activities here on Princeton’s campus and beyond, in addition to keeping abreast of the global refugee crisis and making our communities welcoming to refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers.

Find out more about Princeton’s Center for Jewish Life’s Social Justice initiatives.