The last day of January 2017 was not a good day for international travel—any travel, for that matter. People of all kinds jammed together in and around airports across the country to protest President Trump’s ban on travel from Muslim-majority nations into the United States.
Alongside the protesters were lawyers, reporters and politicians, all trying to reach any of the hundreds of people who suddenly found themselves unable to enter the United States. Among them were top-of-the-class students, professors and doctors entering on visas to take up residency at the nation’s leading universities and hospitals.
Also among them were refugees from foreign lands and hostile regimes who had long waited for legal admittance into the country—individuals and families who’d successfully advanced through a multiyear immigration process only to be stopped in their tracks.
And caught up in the travel ban frenzy were volunteers from several Wilmington-based organizations who had been standing by to welcome Delaware’s first refugee family since the 1990s.
“I’ve never experienced anything quite like it,” says Sarah Green. “Basically, there was an uproar. Countless people had prepped so diligently and enthusiastically. The frustration and heartbreak that swept through all the organizations was overwhelming, and resulted in an explosion of care and people wanting to do something to change the outcome.”
As volunteer coordinator for Jewish Family Services’ Refugee Integration Support Effort (RISE), Green took the news especially hard. She had been instrumental in building a group of individuals and organizations that could help meet the needs of incoming refugees as part of a larger, state-led refugee resettlement initiative.
Called to action by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) in October, JFS created RISE to build awareness and raise funding for families designated to Wilmington. A past partner of HIAS, JFS began a renewed engagement as an affiliate last summer in response to rising instability in several foreign countries and subsequent increases in people fleeing those countries.
As of September 2017, JFS has resettled 20 refugees. Until recently, resettlement efforts were barely perceptible in Delaware. In 2016, none of the refugees who arrived in the United States were settled in the First State; Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey combined had welcomed about 4,300.
“Even before we were contracted by HIAS, it was pretty clear that Delaware had a lot to do in regard to refugee settlement efforts,” Green says. “It was equally clear that its citizens wanted to play a role. After the election, the community came together even more.”
In November, JFS/RISE began working with other faith-based organizations—the Islamic Society of Delaware, Hanover Presbyterian Church, Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church, Westminster Presbyterian and Congregation Beth Shalom—to prepare for its first family.
And all echo similar sentiments about the opportunity presented by JFS—and the deep friendships that have evolved, both among the partners and with the refugees.
“Working on behalf of these families has changed the community,” says Faith Silver, one of RISE’s most active volunteers. “Our understanding of the system—its complexities and faults—has grown, as has our empathy for all people in transition and economic hardship.”
But it wasn’t easy.
Helping refugees is not new to JFS, says CEO Basha Silverman, which in the past has helped settle families from the former Soviet Union, Haiti, Cuba, Myanmar, Cameroon and Iraq. “This particular project, however, is new,” Silverman says. “Before now, our work was less visible to the public, particularly since activity ebbed and flowed, but in recent years, Syria in particular has increased awareness of refugees and the processes involved. In the current political climate, the attention and involvement have been overwhelming.”
Most people do not understand the circumstances from which each individual or family arrives in the country, or what they have to go through to settle here.
“It’s easy to overlook the emotions associated with leaving your country, your memories and your social status behind,” Silverman says. “Many don’t understand that this isn’t a choice, but an act of survival. It is very traumatic.”
And there is some general suspicion to overcome. “People assume refugees are undereducated and poor and looking for handouts,” Silver says. “It is simply not so.”
Volunteers point out that the resettlement effort isn’t just about finding a place for refugees to live. It’s about creating a new life that is fulfilling in as many ways as possible. There are many logistical hurdles. Finding housing in a safe, affordable area can be difficult. Finding a job can also be hard. Even those qualified for high-level, high-paying work may wind up doing menial jobs. Finding sympathetic employers is critical.
“This isn’t a free ride,” says Green. “Most refugees are required to repay travel expenses, and though they are given stipends, they are modest.” Says Silverman, “It simply isn’t enough” to cover overlooked expenses beyond food and housing.
In March, the organizations welcomed a family of four from Afghanistan. The parents have degrees in both history and engineering, and the father had been an interpreter for the U.S. military in operations there. His refugee status, however, made it difficult to find him a job that fit his skills and experience, and that paid anything close to his previous salary or provided adequate health benefits.
“Our congregation took it upon themselves to reach out personally to contacts on his behalf, and we also helped the family find a more appropriate school for their two daughters that was challenging and where they could feel comfortable,” Silver says.
The outpouring of generosity exceeded JFS’s expectations.
“They’re not just any family at this point,” says Silver. “They’re our family, and we treat them as such. Aside from including them in our own gatherings, at home or in our congregations, we also arrange outings for them, to bring fun and joy into their lives and to share a bit of American culture with them—fireworks and baseball, for example. We even arranged for a scholarship to send two young girls to camp this summer. We had many people volunteer to drive them back and forth, and collected enough funds and donations to outfit both with camp clothes, backpacks, etc.—things these families could not have afforded on their own. It really does take a village.”
Across the country, such efforts come with a price—not only in terms of dollars, but also judgment. Some people question why refugees are being prioritized over Wilmington’s homeless. Others struggle to overcome political or cultural misperceptions.
“The reality is that so many people need help,” says Cynthia Shermeyer, executive director of Literacy Delaware. “We want to do it all, but we can’t. Right now, there is a focus on helping refugees find safety and economic stability and to become independent, contributing members of the community. They’re learning from us and we are learning from them.”
Literacy Delaware’s mission is to provide language and reading tutoring to adults, but in addressing each family and individual’s needs, the staff had to quickly learn how to get credits from universities and schools abroad transferred to local institutions, and how to get one refugee’s degree accredited so he could find a better job.
This has also spurred interest among the new refugees and existing community members to take the GED. And, in one family’s case, there was a need to work with one of the children to ensure that she was able to keep up with the other students at her new school. Another family sought help getting an older child into a college-level program.
Faith Silver (left), a volunteer with Jewish Family Services’ Refugee Resettlement Program, and Mary Vane, of Westminster Presbyterian Church, read with children of refugees.//Photo by Joe del Tufo
Says volunteer Mary Vane of Westminster Presbyterian Church, “Our experience is that the refugees are smart, well-educated, hardworking, eager to learn, energetic and adaptable. They have gone through an extremely rigorous vetting process and are very appreciative of our help in getting them integrated into our community. They’re the kind of immigrants that make our country strong. And they are making very good progress toward independence. In less than four months, [one] husband has a full-time job with benefits. Considering that [his] family put their lives at risk [in Afghanistan] to ensure the safety of Americans, I think this was the least we could do to give them a safe haven.”
Though the goal is to get individuals and families self-sufficient in 90 days—the limit for government support (between $925 and $1,125, as provided by HIAS)—it’s not always attainable. One of the focuses among the resettlement organizations is creating an emergency fund and getting as many items and services donated as possible.
Says Green, “Everything our volunteers are doing are invaluable efforts to those in a new country. Though funds are limited, and our ability to purchase is modest, we do make every effort to make incoming families feel as comfortable, and to provide as deep of a cultural understanding as possible.”
For Shermeyer, every minute has been worth it. “I speak for all the volunteers when I say that we have gotten so much more from working with our refugees than they get from us.”
“The enjoyment in watching the look of discovery on the refugees’ faces when they had their first experiences—shopping at an American grocery store with its endless variety, enjoying our parks and the freedom to safely roam around and walk on our streets, landing their first American job, the girls learning to swim at the JCC camp, figuring out how to use the bus system on their own, watching the fireworks and a Blue Rocks game on Fourth of July weekend—the pleasure has been all ours,” says Vane.