From Empty Pockets to Silver Linings: Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay Resettles Refugees

Participants in Afghan Refugee Program. Screen capture Zellerbach Family Foundation.

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 19“For You Were Strangers in the Land of Egypt” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Amy Weiss


no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

-excerpt from a poem by British Somali poet Warsan Shire

JFCS East Bay was founded in 1877 as the Daughters of Israel Relief Society, with a focus on helping vulnerable women, children, and community members. Early on in our history, we developed expertise in resettling refugees in the San Francisco East Bay: Jews coming from Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century, earthquake survivors coming across the bay from San Francisco in 1906, Jews escaping Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Holocaust survivors after the war, and Jews fleeing anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.

Our resettlement program currently serves refugees from around the world, particularly focusing on those who have experienced persecution based on their religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity. We have extensive expertise in resettling refugees who are vulnerable and fleeing violent and dire circumstances.

JFCS East Bay is currently resettling Afghan refugees who served as translators for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Because of their cooperation with the United States military, former translators and their families are now being targeted by the Taliban and other fundamentalists. These brave young men are able to obtain Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) in order to bring themselves and their families to safety. Because they arrive having recently been in grave danger, these families are often highly traumatized and need intensive, individualized support from our Dari/Farsi-speaking case managers and psychologist to start their new lives in our community. Our resettlement team includes Farsi, Dari, Arabic, and Russian speakers, many of whom were themselves refugees or immigrants. In addition to Afghans, we are also resettling Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians, and people from African countries and the former Soviet Union. JFCS East Bay is also the lead organization in the United States resettling LGBTI individuals persecuted for their sexual orientation or gender identity. These refugees come mostly from Africa, the Middle East, and the former Soviet Union. Most of the refugees we serve are Muslim.

Since September of 2015, the world’s attention has been drawn to the plight of refugees and our resettlement work has become even more vital. As Avi Rose, Executive Director of JFCS East Bay, says, we are now “immersed in images of people fleeing, escaping war and persecution, crowding into barely habitable places where they aren’t welcome, casting their fate to flimsy boats crossing dangerous waters, crowding across borders, risking everything for an uncertain future. This is not a new story. For many of us, we need only go back a generation or two, if that, to recall similar stories in our own families. And for all of us who are Jews, we go back to the core narratives that have shaped us as a people, starting with Abraham migrating away from his home to a place he does not know, continuing to the formative experience of our exodus from Egypt, and then, so many centuries of wanderings and expulsions and seeking refuge, a place to live and to be.”

JFCS East Bay is blessed to be part of a community that wants to open doors and provide sanctuary. Here in our community, we have seen a significant surge of interest from people wanting to help, support, and welcome refugees. Since the election of Donald Trump and in particular since the anti-refugee Executive Order was issued, we have been overwhelmed with offers of support from community members wanting to volunteer their time and talent. We’ve received messages like this one: “In 1939, my great-grandparents sponsored the visas of three young men who were fleeing persecution in Germany. I would like to work directly with a refugee family so they too know they are welcome in our country.” And others talk about feeling paralyzed and needing to do something active and positive to help newly arrived families. Many of these volunteers draw on their Jewish faith in reaching out to refugees, including one rabbi who said, “We’ve had family members who have relied on the help of strangers. We know what it feels like to be religious outsiders. This is our central story, our duty, and a full expression of our Jewish values.”

To more deeply engage our community, JFCS East Bay has developed partnerships with many of the local synagogues. Congregants come together to form welcome groups around each refugee family, creating small villages of support. With training and support from our volunteer services staff, the welcome groups offer practical help and friendship to newcomers. We now have twenty-two welcome groups from various synagogues, all of them working actively to support refugees.

Because housing is extraordinarily expensive in the Bay Area, many community members have also stepped up to offer hosted housing to new refugees. Until a refugee has found work, it’s almost impossible for them to afford housing costs in this area. When we appealed to the community to help address this crisis, we received a tremendous response. Many people responded by opening their homes to “strangers.” For example, a Jewish family responded within a day, and then welcomed an Afghan family of nine into their home.

Another Jewish family has made the remarkably generous commitment to house a Syrian family of four for an entire year. Along with a welcome group, the host family also helped the father of the family find employment and secured a pro-bono space in a wonderful neighborhood preschool for the oldest child. The children became fast friends and the housing host, Lilah Kendall reports, “my dad is a Holocaust survivor from Germany. He was 13 when he alone got on a train to France. He came to the US when he was 16.” Lilah felt compelled to help in some way but didn’t expect to fall in love. The housing host says that the unexpected benefit of her family’s act of generosity will be a lifelong friendship between these two families from different worlds.

Despite the desperation, intense grief, and trauma that refugees experience on their journeys to their new land and lives, we have seen glimpses of shining silver linings. Refugees are resilient and our community is warm and embracing. We have seen new interfaith coalitions and alliances sprouting to support refugees, building bridges between faith communities in the service of the vulnerable. A particularly beautiful example of this was when the local Franciscan monastery responded to an urgent appeal we made for housing refugees[1]. It is a powerful alliance indeed that a Catholic Franciscan monastery is working with a Jewish agency to support Muslim refugees. All parties of this unlikely group (including the Muslim refugees) felt deep pride in this partnership. Brother Mike Minton, the director of San Damiano Retreat Center continually thanks JFCS East Bay for giving his community the opportunity to provide service to refugees and in the process the hearts of the brothers broke open. Active compassion requires of us to stretch in completely unforeseeable ways. Who knew we could love strangers so deeply and receive so many gifts and blessings? Who knew I could adopt an African LGBT refugee and take him so deeply into my heart and family? Who knew we could have so many opportunities to put our cherished values into action and teach those values to our children? How could we have imagined the healing that would happen between the Muslim and Jewish communities? Who knew how resilient our refugee and immigrant families would be and how they continue to weave their particular cultural blessings into the fabric of our country.

Precisely because the refugee experience is so challenging the silver linings are so treasured. This is the America we see day in and day out: gritty, hardworking, compassionate, generous, warm, and welcoming.

Amy Weiss, MS, LMFT is the Director of Refugee & Immigrant Services at the East Bay JFCS. She oversees all the programs related to serving refugees and immigrants at the agency, including the resettlement work with refugees, psychological services as well as legal and immigration services it provides to people on the path towards citizenship. The agency resettled 150 people this past year in the two counties it serves.

[1] HIAS made a 4-minute video about this that can be viewed here.