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.”
At that moment I thought my mother would not go forward in the nursing world because she was so heartbroken. To my surprise, she went home and cracked open the books to study even harder. She passed the board exam and served cancer patients as a nurse for the next 20 years. I tell these stories to say that I personally felt the pinch of starting a new life. Ever since then, I have felt pulled to the immigrant rights movement.
Where do most of Baltimore’s refugees come from?
IRC was founded in Baltimore in 1999 and has resettled 11,000 refugees over the last 17 years. The nationalities have changed over the years, but the main groups are from Burma, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Iraq, Sudan, and, more recently, a few Syrians. When we began, the Civil War and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia was going on, so we resettled refugee families from there. Over the years we have settled lots of people from Africa, particularly Somalia and Ethiopia. And then Burma and Bhutan, and Afghanistan and Iraq, given the wars there.
Has Baltimore been particularly welcoming to refugees?
The IRC resettles families in about 22 different cities across the US. But Baltimore is special in that the Mayor of Baltimore City has indicated in clear terms that she is interested in immigrants. She has helped to make Baltimore a welcome destination to immigrants and refugees. Baltimore’s population dropped by 300,000 in the second half of the 20th century. In the last dozen years, it has begun to rebuild population and that is largely due to the arrival of immigrants and refugees.
How does IRC support people’s transitions into their new homes?
There are some standard services that we provide to everyone. We know in advance when a particular family is arriving. We acquire an apartment for them and have it furnished. We pick them up at the airport and help orient them to their new apartment. Sometimes you have refugees coming out of protracted living situations in refugee camps. They haven’t had running water or electricity, and don’t know how to use a stove. So we help give them a cultural orientation. We also help them learn to use the bus, shop at the grocery store, enroll their children in school and begin to transition them towards employment. All able bodied refugees have to begin working and paying their own bills within a few months.
How can volunteers get involved with IRC’s work?
We have different tracks where people can get involved. There’s an internship designed primarily for college students who want to learn more about the refugee crisis and get involved. They typically spend a semester with us working with youth or adults, or volunteering with our health team or gardening program.
The second track is a volunteer program designed for people in the neighborhood who want to be helpful. We have a number of volunteer opportunities. We have a shop, for example where people can donate lightly used clothes and our clients can shop for free. Volunteers run that shop.
Another track is our family mentorship program. We recruit people who don’t have time to volunteer during regular business hours but can serve as a welcoming presence in a client’s life. They commit to 6 months of service and work with one family. They interact directly with the family to figure out things they can help with whether that means practicing English, teaching someone how to grocery shop, or how to write a check. We try to match families with someone who can speak their language. So far we have matched over 100 mentors and families, though we have more requests than we can fill. We are always on the lookout for volunteer mentor coordinators who can help make matches between volunteers and clients. Increasing our capacity to coordinate would make a big difference in helping more families.
What role do you think the Jewish community can and should play in the current refugee crisis?
Very few people know that the IRC was founded by the behest of Albert Einstein. He was visiting New York in 1933 when Hitler came to power. He decided not to go back to Europe and sought asylum in the United States. He convened a meeting of prominent, left-leaning journalists, actors, and others and told them they needed to start paying attention to what was going on in Germany. From that series of conversations, the IRC arose as a volunteer-based organization. When WWII broke out, the IRC sent volunteers to Nazi-occupied Europe, set up shop and clandestinely began to create fake travel papers so Jews could travel their way out of danger to the United States.
The connection between the IRC’s work and what Jews had to experience as a result of the Nazi government is a profound one. There is this amazing historical connection. What I’d say is that Jews, especially those involved in the social justice movements, now have the opportunity to help other refugees who are coming to the US, be they from Syria or Iraq or The Congo. It offers a chance for the Jewish community to recognize and act upon a piece of its own history and experience, and to welcome new people facing persecution.
Find out more about IRC’s work in Baltimore and nationally at their website.
Photo: The Younis family, from Darfur, Sudan, relaxing in their home soon after being reunited following six years apart. Photo by Audrey Gatewood.