This year, above all others, we should turn our thoughts and deeds to the millions of refugees fleeing from war and violence, a reincarnation of our great-grandparents fleeing from pogroms, conscription into the army of the czar and abject poverty. HIAS, our agency for resettlement of refugees in the United States, has prepared a Hagaddah supplement with striking photos and drawings of what it means to be a refugee today.
Now that we’ve passed another Day of Judgment, we can ask ourselves what are we going to do with the life that we’ve been granted? Do we live up to our values, our ideals? Since my teens, I’ve been passionate about worldly causes, but it has always been a challenge to maintain the delicate balance between the sacred and the secular. [Read more…]
On Thursday, I attended a fascinating lecture at Drexel’s Judaic Studies department. The guest speaker was Lisa Moses Leff, whose new book, The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust, is about Zosa Szajkowski, who single-mindedly rescued Jewish books and documents from Germany and France, as an immigrant American GI paratrooper during WWII.
Szajkowski brazenly used the U.S. Army free courier service to ship his parcels back — some two or three in a day — to New York, the last remaining branch of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. He continued to steal Jewish documents after the war and he financed his own scholarship by selling them piecemeal to Jewish institutions in the United States and Israel; the two top buyers were the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Hebrew Union College. He was eventually caught red-handed and he committed suicide in 1978.
When Dr. Leff, Associate Professor at American University, interviewed the elderly librarians who’d acquired the documents, knowing of their sketchy provenance, she found that they were proud of helping to rescue Jewish written material from the Nazis. However, some of the items were taken from institutions that survived the war, and there remain big gaps in the European archives. Everyone knew of Szajkowski in the library and archive community, but he was never publically named.
Ironically, the stolen documents have gained better care, having been catalogued and made available for scholarship. Indeed, when one librarian was asked about giving back the documents, he retorted that they — the European institutions — should pay for all the years of care and storage! Zosa Szajkowski, with his looting and his scholarship, singlehandedly established the field of Jewish historical research, using documents of ordinary Jews. So, do you think the end justifies the means?
On Tuesday night, I attended a viewing of the documentary film Refugee Kids, about an American program set up for refugee children. Run by the International Rescue Committee (founded by Albert Einstein to rescue Jewish refugees), the Refugee Youth Summer Academy transforms 120 kids speaking 26 languages from the world’s hot spots – Iraq, Egypt, West Africa, Tibet, Burma and Bhutan – from tongue-tied newcomers into confident, savvy New Yorkers over the course of a six-week program.
There is Helen, a 16-year-old Burmese refugee, who effortlessly translated from English to Burmese to Chin to Thai to Nepali. There is Tek Nath, who in his first six months in America, did more than most adults: he leased the family apartment, translated for the surgeons operating on his brother’s heart, applied for the family’s green cards, opened bank accounts, and tutored both parents and younger siblings in English – and all the while maintaining straight A’s in his school work. Tek Nath is a 17-year-old who had spent his entire life in a rural Nepalese refugee camp where he had virtually no English instruction.
George from Liberia had lost both parents at a very early age and was raised in Staten Island where he was confronted with the brutality of gang violence and yet still emerged as a student mentor, exhibiting leadership skills. There are also the siblings who faced long separations from their families: Rigzin and Tashi from Tibet who are reunited with their parents in Brooklyn after eight years spent at the Dalai Lama’s refugee school in India; and Ida and Jennifer from Togo who were raised by their aunt and encountered an unforeseen family tragedy — fire and death of a young sister– upon their arrival in the Bronx.
The directors, Renee Silverman and Peter Miller, added to their footage with interviews in the children’s homes and in their communities. The children narrated their often harrowing back stories in hand-drawn pictures, which were animated by the talented Brian O’Connell. Liz Swados, the beloved composer, recorded an original score before her untimely death. Editor Aaron Vega wove the many stories together into a cogent, short film as his last project before winning a seat as American state legislator in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
Refugee Kids is the second film by Silverman and Miller, following their teen Holocaust theater story, Sosua: Make a Better World. Miller writes, “It’s something of a miracle that we were able to shoot, edit, and complete Refugee Kids for what might be the lunch budget of normal film, but we were blessed with generous and talented friends.”
The screening at Rodeph Shalom was sponsored by HIAS PA and the American Jewish Committee. HIAS PA runs a similar summer tutoring program, and it welcomes volunteer tutors and donations of books.
The impact of racism and fear over immigration on local economics and politics will be the topic of a panel discussion, held at the Liberties Bar, 709 North Second Street, 2nd floor, on Thursday, February 23, 2012, at 7:00 PM.
The panel discussion will be sponsored by the Philadelphia chapter of the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC), the Philadelphia chapter of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), and Philadelphia Jobs with Justice.
More after the jump.
The panel will include:
- State Representative Babette Josephs;
- Wendell W. Young IV, President United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union Local 1776;
- immigration attorney David Bennion, Esq.; and
- immigration activist Jessica Hyejin Lee.
The panel will be moderated by Judi Bernstein-Baker, Executive Director of HIAS Pennsylvania.
See flyer for more details.
Jeremiah Alexander retired last week as Refugee Resettlement Case Manager at HIAS. He was interviewed by Hannah Lee.
Do you remember your first meeting with a refugee family at the Philly Airport?
I’ll never forget the first family that I met at the airport. It was actually my first day at work! They were a Burmese Chin family who came from India and were being reunited with their father who had immigrated to the states many years prior. Though he was dying from cancer, there was an intense joy that radiated from him knowing that he was going to spend the rest of his days with his family. I remember feeling extremely privileged to be a part of such an amazing moment. Two of those arrivals later went on to work for HIAS. Esther worked as a Case Aide before being hired as a translator for the Philadelphia School District. She was replaced at HIAS by her amazing brother Gin who currently accompanies many of our Burmese and Bhutanese clients to their necessary appointments.
More after the jump.
What is your educational background?
I attended Eastern University in St. Davids, PA. I earned a B.A. in Political Science in 2004 and an M.A. in International Development in 2008.
What aspect of your background motivated you to work with refugees?
At an early age, I became interested in working on international social justice issues alongside people from diverse cultural backgrounds. I originally thought that would involve moving overseas or at the very least moving to DC to work for a US-based NGO (non-governmental organization) with an international focus. However, while in my master’s program at Eastern, I did an internship with the American Friends Service Committee that changed my trajectory a bit. I worked under Roberta Spivek, the director of the National Economic Justice Program. While working on many broad issues, such as the Cost of War Campaign and lobbying for health care coverage for the uninsured, I found that I was becoming increasingly fascinated with how U.S. national and international policies were affecting people right here in Philadelphia, particularly the under-paid and marginalized populations that tend to be overlooked by most policy-makers.
After my internship, I took a position with my church, Circle of Hope, as the Director of our non-profit arm, which at the time was called Circle Venture. I worked to help facilitate compassionate service opportunities through our various mission teams. The teams were diverse and included a counseling center and an “intentional community” in West Philadelphia devoted entirely to pro-active peace-making. It was a great position that gave me a real sense of our city as a whole. In particular, with an office based at Broad and Washington, I quickly started learning more about South Philadelphia. I began to get a feel for the newly arriving immigrant populations that were moving to South Philly and began to take interest in how they were acclimating to the city. When I saw the posting for the Refugee Resettlement Case Manager position at HIAS, it seemed like all my interests were consolidated into a single position. So I applied!
What is a highlight from your tenure?
The highlight of working for HIAS has been both my co-workers and my daily interactions with clients. My co-workers all come from such different backgrounds but the level of respect, professionalism, and personal care that I received from them was universal. This family-like atmosphere will definitely be impossible to replace. In addition, being able to get to know Bhutanese, Iraqi, Eritrean, and Burmese clients on a personal level has been the opportunity of a lifetime. Through it all, the most striking reality that was etched in my mind over and over again was how similar we all really are.
What was a disappointment?
My biggest disappointment was the lack of resources afforded to refugees at the federal and state levels. Though the amount of federal Reception and Placement money doubled from $450 to $900 per refugee during my tenure– a huge boost, for sure– truly adequate financial support is still lacking. At the state-level, cash assistance from the Department of Public Welfare is also woefully insufficient, particularly for people who are literally trying to build a life from scratch. The myth that a family can live off welfare alone couldn’t be further from the truth. Nobody can survive on that small amount of money without other income to supplement it. I think we need to re-visit the process of resettlement at a national level– something not possible in the current economic climate– and re-adjust to the reality that we are dealing with people from much different backgrounds than we were in the past. Resettlement isn’t a three-month process anymore. I really admire everyone on our Refugee Team for working so hard to make up for these realities at the federal and state levels, truly working tirelessly to help clients acclimate the best they can.
What do you treasure from this position at HIAS? What would you miss? Not miss?
One thing I will miss, other than my clients and my co-workers, was how diverse each day was. As a case manager you have to be prepared, on any day, to be at a meeting one minute and on your way to the hospital with a client the next. Or, you might start the day thinking you’re going to work on administrative tasks only to come to find out that there are a hundred mattresses that need to be moved! I will miss having such unpredictable days. What I won’t miss is the unpredictability when it carries over into the middle of the night! That I’ll leave for those who are even younger than me!
What thoughts do you have about your future?
The future is a little up in the air but I’m becoming more and more interested in the public health field. This will all come further into focus over the next month and I’ll have many more details then!