Interfaith Volunteers Find Common Ground with Refugees in Westchester
By Gabe Cahn, HIAS.org
Apr 09, 2018
“One of the things I’ve had fun doing is sharing meals from different cuisines that they haven’t tried before,” says Jane Dixon.
Dixon, a resident of White Plains, NY, helps lead the Interfaith Council for New Americans Westchester, a coalition of some 150 volunteers working to support refugees in New York City's Northern suburbs.
In November, the group welcomed a Muslim family of five who were resettled by HIAS to Westchester County. Originally from Afghanistan, the Kabir* family was able to come to the United States on a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) thanks to the father, Badih*, working with U.S. forces in his home country.
“We’ve had Chinese take-out, American barbecue, Irish corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick’s Day; they’ve been really good sports about everything, but pizza is by far the favorite,” Dixon adds.
“It's been a two-way street with the mother introducing me to her fabulous cooking. We also found, for the Irish lamb stew, that there is something similar in Afghan cuisine.”
Over the past four months, this seemingly contradictory notion of being totally foreign and yet somehow innately familiar continues to resurface for both the volunteers and the new American family. As different as they may be, there’s a keen sense that they share far more in common than the language, religion, culture—and until recently, geography—that might separate them.
Together, they’re discovering that despite a new environment, they are united by an aspiration to create a life in safety.
As volunteer and professor emerita at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Barbara Birshtein, puts it, “This is the same story of my grandparents more than a hundred years ago.”
“People came from somewhere, they had guts and grit, and some help, and one thing led to another. And a hundred years later, here we are.”
Birshtein is a member of Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle, one of the three synagogues, including Temple Israel of New Rochelle and Temple Israel Center in White Plains, and three local congregations, Community Unitarian Universalist Congregation at White Plains, Ethical Culture Society of Westchester, and New Rochelle United Methodist Church, that make up the Interfaith Council for New Americans Westchester.
The group formed as part of the outpouring of grassroots community support for refugee resettlement that ultimately led to HIAS New York opening a sub-office for resettlement in Westchester County in January 2017. The Westchester resettlement model is based on collaboration with “host organizations” like the Interfaith Council.
“One of the things that’s been really nice, is meeting all these people. Most of us didn’t know each other ahead of time,” Birshtein says of the volunteer coalition.
“Everyone works together as a team, everyone knows their responsibilities,” adds Jeff R. Swarz, another Beth El member who is the Co-Executive Chairman of the Interfaith Council along with Dixon.
Dixon, Birshtein, and Swarz all describe a truly communal effort on the part of everyone involved in supporting the Kabirs.
“The key to our group’s success is the fact that we all are working for the good of the family. No one lets their ego get in the way of making sure the family gets what they need,” says Swarz.
And by any measure, the group is successfully doing just that. From finding and furnishing an apartment for the Kabirs, to supplying transportation to and from various appointments, to enrolling the children in school, the interfaith group is playing an integral role in getting the family accustomed to their new country.
On the most basic level, Swarz speaks of simply being supportive of them as they shed the deep concerns for their security that they lived with each day in Afghanistan.
“I remember the father asking me, ‘Is it safe to walk around in the neighborhood?’” he says.
“You have to become sensitive to the fact that this family spent about 18 to 24 months going through the SIV application process while under extreme duress. The transition to safety takes time. In Afghanistan they were trying to survive, in America they are learning how to live.”
Indeed, both Swarz and Birshtein, who helps lead the volunteers on the education committee, were shocked to hear that many parents in Afghanistan do not send their kids to school because they fear their children may not come home after school.
“It still gives me the creeps when I think about that,” Birshtein tells HIAS.org. “There was an amazing amount of trust on the parents’ part to let their children go to school here so soon.”
“It is a sobering thought,” Swarz notes. “That trust is earned, not given, and we all take the responsibilities involved very seriously”.
The trust is paying off. When the Kabirs arrived this past November, only Badih spoke English. Now, though they can be shy at times, the three children ages ten, five, and four, are quickly picking up the second language thanks in a large part to their ESL classes and volunteer tutors.
Beyond basic needs such as housing, schooling, and making sure they have adequate medical care, the Interfaith Council is also showing the family their new city through experiences they did not have access to back in Afghanistan.
Dixon arranged for Badih and his eldest child, an avid soccer player and budding basketball fan, to attend a Harlem Globetrotters game. Swarz took the family to the Big Apple Circus, and one day after accompanying Badih to an appointment in Manhattan, he brought him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art—his first ever museum.
Additionally, part of the cultural exposure means inviting the Kabirs to learn more about the faith communities the volunteers represent.
On the Sunday before Easter, Dixon, who is affiliated with Community Unitarian Universalist Congregation, drove the family’s three children to another volunteer from her congregation’s house for an afternoon of Easter bingo, egg dying, and rabbit face-making.
Around Christmas time, Birshtein and Dixon attended a communal event in New Rochelle with them. Last month, Birshtein extended an invite to the family for her Passover Seder. And a few weeks back, Swarz arranged for the Kabirs to attend a Friday night dinner at his rabbi's home.
“We are learning from them and they are learning from us,” says Swarz.
But above all, the volunteers are perhaps most proud of the family’s strides toward self-sufficiency in the United States. They had hoped that Badih would have a job and a driver’s license within six months, but after four, he’s already lined up a salaried job at a real estate firm in Scarsdale, attained his license, and learned to navigate New York’s public transportation system. Badih hopes to go back to college in the fall to complete his bachelor’s degree in business administration.
As for the overall experience of taking part in the effort to welcome refugees to the United States, Swarz has two words: “pure joy.”
“I’ve done a lot of volunteer work and I can’t think of anything that’s been as rewarding,” he says.
“We’re getting to learn more about what makes them tick, as they learn what makes us tick,” adds Birshtein.
“It’s really a privilege to be able to help them.”
*Names have been changed to protect client privacy.