Just after 10:45 p.m. at Pittsburgh International Airport on a Tuesday night in mid-May, shining steel elevator doors opened to reveal three generations of Congolese refugees coming to join family for a new start in America. Having flown from Kenya to Amsterdam to Pennsylvania, they wore their exhaustion lightly, except for the sleeping infant swathed in a cotton sling suspended on her mother’s back.
Their waiting family members exulted. One man, a single dad who’d arrived with his children a month prior—to protect his privacy, I’ll call him K—blurred across the space to embrace his mother, brother, sister, and her family. Their small group’s chances for survival had just advanced exponentially: His mother could watch over the children, allowing K and his sister and brother-in-law to get to work to support the family.
No one was complaining. They’d escaped violence in Congo and an overcrowded refugee camp in Burundi. But money was a major concern: Those who come to the United States under the federal refugee-settlement program administered by the State Department and Department of Homeland Security receive only $1,000 per head, and they’re expected to be economically self-sufficient in very short order.
For destitute non-English speaking refugees whose worldly possessions fit in a few suitcases and duffel bags, this would be impossible without help. Fortunately for this extended family, Jewish Family and Community Services, one of three agencies involved in refugee resettlement work in Pittsburgh, was there at the airport with a Swahili interpreter, case worker, and aide who greeted them inside the terminal and shepherded them through customs. The staff escorted the new arrivals to their apartment, sparely furnished and unadorned, but where the beds were already made with clean sheets. Basic human necessities—a few groceries, toiletries, and cleaning supplies—had been supplied in preparation for their arrival. The work of getting medical checkups, school enrollments, ESL classes, and employment would begin the next day.
JFCS is in its 80th year of providing social services to the wider Pittsburgh community, and has also been serving refugees for about 40. Like other Jewish caring agencies all across the country, it got into refugee resettlement assistance to meet the crisis facing Soviet Jewry in the 1970s, and even more so after the Soviet Union dissolved. Spurred by the nationalistic anti-Semitism that erupted in the chaos of the early ’90s, over a million Russian-speaking Jews made their way to Israel and hundreds of thousands to the United States.
“Unlike many of the other Jewish agencies when the crisis ended, in Pittsburgh we didn’t shut our doors,” said Leslie Aizenman, JFCS’s longtime director of refugee and immigration services.
After the Russians came the Bosnians, Burmese, and in more recent years the Congolese, Bhutanese, Iraqis, Syrians, and a specially designated group of Afghanis who helped the U.S. military in Kabul and are at risk for retribution. “We continue to ‘welcome the stranger,’” Aizenman explained, “as we are commanded to do.”
The Jewish moral imperative is clear, said Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in the 1880s, a national umbrella organization for agencies—not only Jewish agencies like JFCS—working in refugee resettlement. “Torah commands us 36 times to welcome the stranger,” he explained. “The repetition is interesting—maybe it’s because it’s not the most important commandment, but the easiest to forget.”
The passage most often quoted is from Leviticus 19:33-34:
When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.
Hetfield finds it remarkable in several ways. “In Egypt we were strangers,” he said. “It’s not just a pure commandment, it draws on our own historical experience as a justification. That’s unusual. And then it goes on to say, ‘I am the Lord your God,’ because if the historical justification isn’t persuasive, do it because I told you to.”
It is not solely Jewish teachings that make refugee resettlement work Jewish, according to Hetfield, who is an immigration lawyer: It’s the American-Jewish experience itself. “1881 to 1921 was a ‘golden age’ for Jewish migration to the U.S.,” he said. “In those 40 years our population rose from a quarter of a million to three million because of refugees fleeing the Russian empire and pogroms; it was the biggest mass migration of Jews since we were forced out of the Iberian Peninsula.”
Hetfield points out that the American-Jewish community was allowed in without restrictions in an open immigration process, unlike the Chinese who were barred during the same period (and beyond) by the Chinese Exclusion Act. “We have to pay that forward,” he said.
At first, as Jewish migration declined, HIAS committed to continue refugee work in the spirit of al ha mishmar—to be on guard for when Jews might need it in the future. “But five years ago, we had an epiphany,” said Hetfield. “HIAS will be ready to help Jews when they need it, as Ukrainian and Iranian Jews still do right now. But we’re helping refugees, period. They need it, too, and we’re in a position to do it.”
Sawsan Alobaidi is the senior refugee case worker for JFCS who greeted K’s family at the airport. Before she was hired for her current role three years ago, she worked for JFCS as an interpreter of Arabic. And before that she was resettled by JFCS as a refugee herself.
“I feel them,” she said about K and his relatives. “I was in their shoes.” Alobaidi, her husband, and two daughters fled Iraq in 2010. “Bombs were falling in Baghdad. We left everything—our home, cars; we were waiting for resettlement in Syria for four years. We started over, just like them.”
This spring her youngest daughter was co-valedictorian at her high-school graduation and will attend Carlow University in Pittsburgh to study art therapy; her oldest just graduated from Carlow in biology and aims to pursue a career as a medical researcher. She says working at JFCS is her way of giving back.
“We lived in a war zone,” Alobaidi said. “In Pittsburgh, when there’s fireworks or a thunderstorm, they get scared. It’s inside them. They don’t remember much about it and want to go to see Baghdad now, but I don’t think it’s a good idea. Every time you leave the country, it’s a risk.”
According to Aizenman, under the Obama administration the United States was absorbing between 75,000 and 85,000 refugees a year. Now it’s officially down to 45,000, but she says that in Pittsburgh, “the human flow has slowed to a trickle.” Whereas before staff was making the trip to the airport every week to greet a new family and help resettle them, now it’s a rare occurrence. “We’re capable of taking more than this,” she said.
Though there are similarities between her program and those offered by Northern Area Multi-Services Center and Acculturation for Justice, Access, and Peace Outreach, the two other agencies in Pittsburgh also authorized to assist refugees under the federal program, there is one important difference. JFCS provides all employees with training on Jewish history and values, contextualizing the work as part of a specifically Jewish mission.
“I connect to my roots in this work,” Aizenman said about her own commitment.
On June 20, World Refugee Day, the latest numbers of refugees will be announced by the United Nations agency responsible for tracking those statistics, and a historic peak is expected. It’s estimated that of the 65 million displaced people worldwide, 25 million are refugees.
“A million fled genocide in Burma, more than that have fled Sudan and very few are going back,” Hetfield said. “We will look back at this time in U.S. history with shame and horror that we didn’t do more.”
There are Jews who disagree with that statement. In a March 2017 article, the Jewish Chronicle of Pittsburgh gave voice to local opponents of Jewish resources being dedicated to helping non-Jews, especially Muslim refugees. But both Aizenman and Hetfield say that support in the Jewish community has never been stronger. Hetfield points to over 400 congregations nationwide that have become “welcoming” congregations, a state-by-state list is available on his organization’s website. And because of an increased desire for connection with refugees settling in Pittsburgh, Aizenman is looking to hire a volunteer coordinator, and is using the time until the current constrictions are eased to expand programs and services to refugees already here.
On May 19, Samikchya Rai and Tila Poudel, both 18-year-old girls born in Nepal, attended a year-end picnic for the Refugee Youth Employment Program in North Park, the largest Allegheny County park located about a dozen miles due north of downtown Pittsburgh. Frisbees flew while charcoal heated in the grills and hip-hop played on the sound system.
RYEP is a high-school-based program run by JFCS to help young refugees negotiate the tricky terrain of college and financial-aid applications, and build skills and work experience for future careers.
Both young women were full of praise for the RYEP program staff who during the course of their weekly meetings had taken them on field trips to Carlow University, CCAC (the local community college), and Penn State, expanding their worlds. Both are college bound in the fall.
“Our program leaders are so helpful,” said Rai. “If we have the smallest problem, they find a solution,” such as helping the kids get driving permits or resolving awkward social issues.
“We can talk with the staff about problems we can’t share with our family,” said Poudel. “Like my friend is lesbian … in our community they shame you for that; they’re not open minded.”
“Each year we do more than the previous year,” said Bishnu Timsina, a JFCS youth career counselor whose own son has been through the program, “adding things that the kids want. Last year we talked about teen pregnancy, how to have safe sex. They didn’t understand fully, so we brought in some speakers and talked about health issues.”
For the last 21 years, Alla Puchinsky has worked at JFCS helping refugees gain access to medical care and other health benefits like food assistance for kids and pregnant women. She, too, was a former refugee resettled by JFCS, and sees this work as part as what her mother used to call “Yiddish neshama.”
Puchinsky’s family didn’t leave in the first wave of Soviet immigration; they saw other Jewish families who’d applied turned down and then stripped of their jobs as punishment for trying. They got out in 1994, but by then the anti-Semitism in Belarus was worse than when it was part of the Soviet Union. “Belarus for Belarussians was the slogan and that meant no Jews, no anyone else; not a very nice situation,” she recalled.
When they did get out two years after applying, they went from Minsk to Moscow to New York to Pittsburgh, where her husband had an uncle.
“Though we had the highest education it was possible to have, I worked cleaning houses, caring for elderly,” she said. “We had to survive.”
Eventually she became a Russian-language professor at the University of Pittsburgh and landed the job at JFCS.
“At first I worked with Russian Jews, and then we started to work with refugees from all over the world,” Puchinsky said. “Refugees have one thing in common. They all are a little bit lost; everything is new—new language, new culture, even the weather. Knowing no one and nothing, it’s very, very difficult. To understand with your whole heart, you have to be in their shoes.”
She remembers the deprivations during perestroika, including rationing of bar soap and socks.
“It was so difficult financially, we had vouchers to get food but the stores were empty,” she recalled. “We were three generations living in three small rooms; after I had my daughter my son slept with my parents.”
One of the saddest cases she now has in her caseload is an elderly Syrian couple who got here only to have the door slam shut on their kids. “They would never have come if they realized their kids couldn’t,” she said. “They’re here and they can’t go back.”
She’s heard some of the objections by Jews about assisting refugees from Islamic states, but she urges empathy: “Because Jews never had their own home and were always running around the world, Jews should understand people who to survive have to run and find a home somewhere else.”
Hetfield agrees and offers religious, moral, and political arguments.
“The commandment doesn’t say ‘welcome the Jew,’ it says the stranger,” he said. “Yad Vashem honors righteous gentiles for helping Jews during a genocide. People are still fleeing genocide. Just because it isn’t the Holocaust, it’s still genocide. Lastly, American Jews are a tiny minority in this country and an even tinier minority in the world. We cannot survive alone; we have to stand up for human rights everywhere. Otherwise you leave yourselves vulnerable. A very bad strategy.”
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Frances Madeson is a freelance journalist and the author of the comic novel Cooperative Village, a satire on the war on terror set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.