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!

Open Letter

Dear Ms. Vulgamore,

I write as a concerned music patron.  The recent decision to apply for Chapter 11 financial re-organization sets a troubling precedence in the music world and I wonder how Philadelphia would fare in the end?  Since that decision, I have been having weekly conversations with a source within the organization and I was moved to write by our latest chat yesterday.

Yes, we can be proud that the Philadelphia Orchestra is one of the top five in the nation (along with New York, Boston, Chicago and Cleveland), but I was amazed to learn that our orchestra also pays the highest salary of all these as well as the highest starting salary for the musicians (at $70,000, an unheard-of amount in the fine arts)!  Equally amazing facts to me are: the Orchestra does not perform or rehearse on Sundays; the 12-week vacations that some musicians enjoy; and the contracts that stipulate a full orchestra for each performance, necessitating substitute players and a huge substitute salary payroll.

Yes, it does seem prudent to re-think these financial agreements, but what does it mean to throw all the previous years of labor negotiations out the window?  Could every other cultural organization take this “easy” way out of financial difficulties?  What obligations to your employees (and your paying patrons) remain?  But what about the unwieldy 60-member administrative staff?  And why are you still interviewing candidates for the following positions (as listed on your website): Director, Foundations and Government Relations; Institutional Giving Coordinator; Group and Corporate Sales Coordinator; Operations Coordinator; and Education and Community Partnerships Coordinator?  I do note that the part-time position as receptionist is non-paying.

How could you think of retiring Peter Nero, the energetic, two-time Grammy-award-winning pianist and director of the Philly Pops– under the same management as the Philadelphia Orchestra- for 30 years?  His much younger colleague, James Levine, has been suffering from debilitating back troubles, but he has been allowed the liberty and respect to choose when to withdraw from his multiple duties as conductor and music director of the Metropolitan Opera and the Boston Symphony.

I read in Sunday’s Inquirer that the Orchestra will have an abbreviated season at the Mann this summer, because of its previously planned European tour.  Add this fact to the uncertainty over whether there will be a fall season and you leave your patrons puzzled and frustrated.  Do remember that Philadelphia lies within an easy commute to New York and even Washington, so some of your music-loving patrons could choose to leave the city for their listening pleasure.

While I have your ear, could I also add that the Orchestra’s move to the Kimmel Center has about doubled the ticket prices beyond the affordability of the average family with children?  No wonder that your concerts as seen from the stage are often a sea of senior faces with glasses.  What are your obligations to your patrons?  To nurturing a music audience for the future?

If yours were a Jewish organization, I would say shanda for shame.  You are a world-class cultural institution, so conduct yourself with world class.

Sincerely,
Hannah Lee

Some Lessons I Have Learned About BIkur Cholim

We human beings learn better, more viscerally, when it is experiential.  A recent convalescence from an injury has taught me some serendipitous lessons in being a patient (wouldn’t “impatient” be a more apt term?) and offering comfort to the sick.

With one leg effectively immobilized, I have learned to get up from a prone position from the floor; throw most non-fragile items down the stairs; bump downstairs on my tush (I never did learn to gauge the distance on the stair treads to do it back upwards); ask for and accept help from all kinds of strangers, including the visiting plumber; and I am still learning to be patient while the requested help– a fetched object, a ride– is being processed and executed.

This injury and convalescence has taught me some important lessons in bikur cholim (comforting the sick):

  • show that you care;
  • do not offer blithe reassurances on prognosis and recovery (you do not really know);
  • do not relate medical horror stories of your own or of others (this is not the time for one-upsmanship or to educate the naïve);
  • ask what would give comfort to the invalid (not what you think would give comfort; I’ve learned this lesson before about giving appropriate birthday gifts); and
  • try different ways of making the person feel alive and needed (such as by maintaining the family routines), not just defined by the injury or illness.

Most of the time we take our bodies for granted and we’re heedless of how fortunate we are that we can awaken each day and have all of our organs and limbs ready to do our bidding.  But when our body fails us, it’s not necessary or helpful to regard it as a punishment, as in what did we do wrong to deserve this trial?.  A more positive, healing perspective is to think of it as a nisayon, a test- for us and for our community and social network.  This could be a test for our neshamah (soul) and of our values.  How do we comfort the sick and help them stay connected and a part of our life?