Introduction

My first post was an article in the blog, The Jew and the Carrot, (which has over 100,000 readers worldwide): http://jcarrot.org/welcoming-the-stranger-a-sukkot-meditation

My refugee family lived in a village in the minority Chin state in western Myanmar, on the border with India.  The military junta was conscripting all the men and boys for heavy labor, transporting weaponry within the country.  Their father died on one of these forced marches two years ago.  The family fled that night and traveled into Thailand.  However, the youngest daughter, aged 11 at the time, was separated from them at the scrimmage at the bus station.  The promised Next Bus never arrived, so they lost touch with her and she ended up in a Christian Community House where she was able to attend a Chinese/Korean Christian school.  The mother and elder daughters got rounded up and sold into bondage to a rubber plantation in Malaysia.  They worked long days until a friend was able to post enough ransom money to free them.  Miraculously, they found their sister/daughter in church one Sunday!  The mother and elder daughters all worked in Malaysia (the youngest was enrolled in school) until their petition for Refugee Status was granted.  They do have relatives in America– their father’s brother lives in Chicago and an aunt lives in Maryland– but they ended up in Philadelphia because their refugee portfolio got awarded to HIAS here.

Based on oral testimony of the eldest daughter, without a translator

Start the HIAS Chronicles from the beginning here.

 

Today I was interviewing Senior Volunteer for a new feature for the revamped HIAS website, to be launched in September.  I mentioned that Prominent Congregant from my shul has many, many items to donate and a deadline to get things out of his house before his big move.  Together, we hopped over to visit and she determined what will be picked up by Professional Mover and what will be picked up by me in my Ford sedan.

This volunteer wanted to respond to my last post.  She has been working with just one family from Day One and she showed me the many notes of thanks written to her in rudimentary English with poor spelling.  She has definitely been appreciated in her role as American Friend.  She also has been working creatively in other areas on behalf of the refugees, but you’ll have to wait for the website’s launch to read all about it.

While I was recuperating from my knee injury, my father-in-law cautioned me against driving people in my car.  In case of an accident, any of my refugees could sue me, even if I’m not at fault–  and that would be one way to emulate American custom!  When I questioned HIAS about their insurance policy, they confirmed that they only had secondary coverage, meaning I’m not covered by their plan.

Since recovering, I’m been wondering how I should proceed, if I’m not to resume the work that I’d been doing on behalf of the refugees.  Yesterday, I had my meeting at the HIAS office.  I told of my confusion that my efforts to reach out to the refugees have not resulted in any deepening relationships.  Don’t they value having an American Friend?  It’s a cultural difference, said the Social Worker.  They think of us as the Government, said the Director of Development.  Me, a representative of the U.S. government!?   I declined to take the Foreign Service exam while in college because I couldn’t endorse all of our country’s polices, specially overseas.  I recall that when my daughter and I used to volunteer for the Jewish Relief Agency, which delivers monthly parcels of food to the poor, we were debriefed thus: many of the clients in the northeast speak only Russian, so we’re to identify ourselves as “Chabad.”  No, I’m not a practicing  Chabad Jew and I will not identify as such.

The upshot of the meeting was that I was offered the opportunity to write a feature for the new website to be launched in September, in which I’ll interview the different  people associated with HIAS— clients, staff, board members, and volunteers.  I could also lead acculturation workshops, expanded from the present single session to a series of weekly sessions, for each new family.  Or I could return to working with one family at a time.  But once the family becomes busy with work and school, it’s hard for me to find a time to be with them, as I’m only available during the school day.  In a role reversal, it is my college-graduate daughter who is teaching me to set limits on my time.

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.