HIAS Chronicle: An Interview with Jeremiah Alexander

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.

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.

Any funny anecdotes or faux pas?

Hmmm, funny stories are tough because the funniest ones all come at a clients’ expense or involve me doing something I shouldn’t…Maybe we’ll leave those off for now.

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!

I’ve been on leave while recuperating from my knee injury.  Thank you to my Readers who’ve expressed concern and the local ones who’d offered assistance.  I have gained a greater appreciation (even more so than before) for my fellow members of Planet Earth who might need a little help, from running errands (so easy when one is mobile, not so for an invalid) to opening doors (so difficult while on crutches).  I’ve also developed a greater appreciation that people have great untapped potential.  This encompassed my special-needs daughter, whom I’ve treated with great care and tenderness.  During my convalescence, she has exhibited unfailing good cheer and ready willingness to help.  I’ve had to be patient, giving very specific, concrete instructions (and to not rush her with stacked or multiple requests), but she has been very sweet and obliging.

Now I will offer my interview with Jeremiah Alexander, the Refugee Resettlement Case Manager whose last day at HIAS was Thursday.  I will miss him sorely.

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!

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.

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.

Any funny anecdotes or faux pas?

Hmmm, funny stories are tough because the funniest ones all come at a clients’ expense or involve me doing something I shouldn’t…Maybe we’ll leave those off for now.

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!

Update:

The Burmese Karen family whose daughter has spina bifida has moved to Buffalo to re-unite with family there.  We’ve given them the contact information of the nearest spina bifida clinic there, so we can only hope that they’ll be able to connect for continuing medical care for their child.

The Eritean refugee was denied the landscaping position that we’d interviewed earlier.  He exhibited such hesitation about the long and expensive commute that the Office Manager chose to hire a local person.  The refugee has expressed interest in working in the meat-packing factories, with their high rate of occupational injuries.  Sigh, my husband reminds me that not every shidduch (match) works out to our plans.

It was another unusual day out with my refugees yesterday, but while memorable, the results were not so much fun for me.  I‘d brought a Bhutanese family to the Refugee Clinic and while visiting the bathroom, I popped my knee.  This was an anomaly for me, as I’d never had any problem from my knees before.  The Resident got me an ice pack and I attempted to soothe the knee while the three children were examined and received two vaccinations apiece.  Alas, the staff was not allowed to dispense to me any pain medication, but they relented on giving me an Ace bandage.  Also, my car was parked three long city blocks away and it was pouring rain with a strong wind.  Would a taxi driver consent to such a short ride, even with the offer of a big tip?  I decided to brave the conditions (and risk damaging further my knee), instructing the family to wait for me in the lobby, away from the foul weather (they also did not have a single umbrella amongst them).

The 10-year-old boy was again car-sick and did not want to get back into my car, but he was over-ruled by the rest of his family.  He sat in the middle position in the back, and I told him to close his eyes.  Note to self: be prepared with barf bags and ginger candy.

The other factor was that the morning visit had taken so long that it was already noon.  We were all hungry.  During our wait, I’d asked the teen daughter if they were able to find their favorite foods and she said that they have not found an Indian grocery store.  The family is Brahmin Hindu and their customs are most similar to those of Indians.   I later learned that there are no Indian shops in South Philly, but the Nepali Interpreter told us that his wife shops at two stores in West Philly.  Well, we were off for an exploration, then!  I found the store easily and there was even a small parking lot on the side.  The family selected items from the freezer, but I pointed out that none of those items were ready-to-eat.  Upon query, the lady of the store (the owner?  A relative?) led us to the back of the store— mostly obscured from the main store floor– where they offered a simple menu and the entertainment of a Bollywood movie on a large flat-screen television set. The family selected samosas and sodas from glass bottles.  I ordered a hot tea, and it came Nepali style, with milk, sugar, and spices.  They were delighted, especially the mother who was finally able to find her legumes and spices, which I bought for them as she wasn’t prepared to shop.

When we returned to the car, the ill-disposed boy (who’d suffered from a headache and heartburn after regurgitating) fell asleep, so I was able to go the faster route on the highway.  After depositing the family at their home in South Philly (and making the extra effort to slam shut all the doors– something they were too polite to do)—and it was still raining— I drove myself to the Emergency Room of the hospital nearest to my home.  The staff took two X-rays and discharged me with crutches and a knee immobilizer— something akin to a foam and metal cast.  I’ve just accepted an appointment with an orthopedist for Monday, where I could get a MRI of the soft tissue damage.  I wonder how long it will be before I can drive again?  Being an invalid is no fun, but who’s whining?

Most outings with my refugees become adventures in Western acculturation, such as the use of seat belts (I showed the two boys sitting in the rear of my car the (unsanctioned) trick of moving the shoulder strap behind them, as it was cutting into their necks) and how to fold their pizza slice for easy biting when the plastic fork and knife proved ineffective.  The unintended spectacle came when one of the boys innocently shook his soda bottle to mix the contents— No, don’t do that!— thereupon showering the table with its contents.  And, they do tend to become carsick afterwards; my husband warned me against feeding them, but if I believed that, then I’m in the wrong line of work.

The initial meeting with my new assignment, a Bhutanese family, was unsettling in some unusual ways.  The twin boys (of two sets of twins in the same family, rare for Asians, especially without in-vitro fertilization) uncanningly resembled my nephews when they were younger.  The teen sister had multiple piercings, artfully distressed jeans, and a cross on her neck.  The family is Brahmin Hindu, so did she know she was wearing a religious symbol?  She said she liked it, and only much later, admitted to attending services at a local church.  Her mother was not perturbed, but this does not surprise me as my own mother, herself Buddhist, was accepting of my brother’s turn to the Church and, later my conversion to Judaism.  (Only my adoption of Orthodox practices proved unsettling for my parents, given the separations imposed.)

Yesterday was a long day at the new Refugee Clinic opened by Children’s Hospital.  After one boy had his follow-up exam, we were told that the blood work kits for tuberculosis for him and his siblings were not available at that site, and to spare us a wait for a courier, we could go to the main building, 0.61 miles away.  The Translator (a man with two graduate degrees and one son who’d studied at Oxford) assured me that they are used to walking long distances, so I left my car in its spot and we hiked over.  When we arrived, we had to wait for the designated person, who never did show us her face.  When I got impatient (as it was lunchtime), I asked if she was already out to lunch, literally.  No, the reason for the delay was that the kits had not arrived there either (so why did she agree to our visit in the first place?).  Whereupon, I shepherded my crew to the hospital food court and witnessed the antics mentioned above.

The Refugee Clinic is an innovation that some of the major teaching hospitals have recently instituted, to help train their residents in the issues of an international clientele.  I particularly liked the fledging one run by Children’s Hospital— only one month old as of yesterday— because the staff was unusually friendly and the medical residents who volunteer for the clinic are really solicitous of the different needs of the refugees.

We were there for a follow-up because one boy had blood in his stool.  The two Residents asked many questions about accompanying symptoms— no, he has no discomfort, no fever or chills, no sudden weight loss (in fact, he’s gained four pounds since arriving in America six weeks ago!)—but he’s had his symptoms for two years already, an unusually long time for a parasitic infection.  The family had brought in stool specimens.  When the Resident asked if the boy drank much, I interjected saying that all the refugees have complained about the quality of the water in South Philly and many choose to buy bottled water.  This family had not done so, but the boy was not drinking much water either.

When the female Resident asked about school, the boy chose to talk about the free meals available at school— he liked the breakfasts but not the lunches, as American meat is too bland.  The male Resident asked how was he managing with the language barrier, was he only speaking with his brother?  I pointed out that children often play together without English fluency, as sports can be a universal language of its own.  I mentioned that while the sister is in a high school with ESOL and a New Learner’s Academy (for those arriving with no English fluency whatsoever), the boys were in an elementary school without any ESOL programs, and probably without an itinerant ESOL teacher either.  Such are the breaks in a poor school district.  They’ll flounder for a while, but in a matter of months, they’ll be speaking English too, even if they wouldn’t be able to understand their social studies textbook.