Synagogue Volunteers Join Forces With U.S. Veterans to Help Refugee Family

By Gabe Cahn,

When Ibrahim* signed on to serve as an interpreter for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, he knew there would be risks. Helping the American forces in his home country would almost certainly put him and his family in danger.

But he may not have expected that several years later, on a summer Sunday afternoon in Queens, a makeshift caravan of U.S. veterans, just like the people he had bravely served alongside, and a group of Manhattan-based synagogue volunteers, would show up to help furnish his family’s new home.

In May, Ibrahim and his family arrived in New York to start a new life in the United States after obtaining Special Immigrant Visas. The SIV program was established by Congress to provide sanctuary for nationals of Afghanistan and Iraq who risked their lives working with the U.S. military and were then left vulnerable in their home countries.

“We have a special responsibility and owe a particular debt of gratitude to SIV recipients because of the critical work they did to help keep the America safe,” said Matthew Lester, one of the leaders of the New York Chapter of Veterans for American Ideals, a nonpartisan group that supports the SIV program. “I want to ensure that the United States is on the right side of history when it comes to protecting the world's most vulnerable.”

Once they get to America, Special Immigrant Visa holders are eligible for the same integration services provided to refugees during their first 30 to 90 days in the country. After Ibrahim arrived, he contacted HIAS New York for this initial assistance, which includes things like registering for health and social services and getting his children enrolled in school.

Lisa Habersham, Ibrahim’s case manager at HIAS, learned that his family lacked some basic items for their home, such as linens, an air conditioner and enough clothes for their children. So together with HIAS Program Specialist Isabel Burton, she contacted the Synagogue Coalition for the Refugee and Immigration Crisis, a group of more than a dozen Manhattan synagogues that has mobilized thousands of Jewish New Yorkers in support of refugees.

Within days, Elaine Klein of B’nai Jeshurun and Charlie Davidson of Ansche Chesed had compiled a list of needs and collected dozens of donated items for Ibrahim’s family. Congregants gave everything from sheets, towels and kitchen equipment, to a television, computer and bicycles for his kids.

“Individual people, individual synagogues can only do so much,” explained Klein, who is the co-chair of the Refugee and Immigration Committee at B'nai Jeshurun. “Groups are always better.”

Meanwhile, Veterans for American Ideal’s Matthew Lester caught wind of the donation drive for a newly arrived SIV family in New York. He knew his group had to get involved.

“As veterans, we aren't in the habit of waiting for someone else to get the job done,” Lester told “When we see someone who has put it all on the line for our country, we want to do everything we can to help them.”

In less than 24 hours, three VFAI members had signed up to assist the synagogue volunteers with delivering the donations to Ibrahim’s new home, and several others offered to help contribute key items.

On Sunday, June 25, the synagogue coalition volunteers and veterans met on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, gathered the donated goods outside Ansche Chesed, loaded them up into cars and vans, and drove to Ibrahim’s home to deliver them.

“I cannot begin to express my appreciation for all that they did and gave to me and my family,” Ibrahim said. “The volunteers were loyal and committed.”

“What made this such a powerful experience was the passionate commitment of the vets, who have been working so hard to save and help resettle SIV families like the one we helped,” said Klein.

“If there's one aspect of American history that I think is undeniable, it's that our country's founders intended for the U.S. to be a place to which oppressed people could come to build a new life in a free country,” added Lester.

“I would urge every American to seek out a refugee and hear their story. Sit with a refugee and really get to know them,” Lester continued. “You might be surprised how similar their story is to that of your grandparents or great-grandparents.”

While there are no specific plans to date, both VFAI and the Synagogue Coalition for the Refugee and Immigration Crisis hope to continue working together with HIAS to assist refugees.

*Name has been changed to protect the client’s privacy.

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