Volunteers Allow HIAS' New York Clients to Weather the Pandemic

By SaraJane Renfroe, Program Officer for Partnerships and Volunteer Services, and Jada Keyser, Volunteer Services Summer Program Associate

Volunteers Allow HIAS' New York Clients to Weather the Pandemic

Cecilia Mabilais-Esteves, a HIAS New York volunteer, prepares for an English tutoring session with asylum seekers Samuel and Mirlande on Aug. 26, 2020.

(Jack Iffert)

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down New York City earlier this year, Rachel Cooper and Joanna Solotaroff received a message. It was an email asking for help getting much-needed groceries to HIAS clients who had lost their jobs because of the lockdown.

They did that — and more.

Working with HIAS’ New York staff and other volunteers, Cooper and Solotaroff helped locate food banks and soup kitchens that were still providing meals. They also reached out to their own networks for donations toward grocery gift cards. With the help of Cooper, Solotaroff and many others, HIAS has purchased more than $11,700 of items for clients in the New York area, including protective equipment, cleaning supplies, groceries, and other essential items.

“This was something tangible that I could support,” Cooper said. “And I knew that by working together with this task team, we could help many more in need.”

Providing groceries and other necessities is just one element of what HIAS calls “wraparound services.” The term encompasses all of the kinds of assistance HIAS’ legal clients need to live secure and stable lives. The wraparound services team connects those clients with volunteers to not only to provide for basic needs but also tutor refugees in English, provide career mentorship, help people with finding jobs, and many other tasks.

The pandemic has made these services even more crucial. With many clients losing jobs or running out of money, HIAS New York, the HIAS legal team, and the wraparound team have provided more than $250,000 in emergency financial assistance to asylum seekers and refugees. Their assistance programs, many of which usually involve face-to-face contact, have also been reworked so they can continue remotely.

One of the team’s new volunteers, Cecilia Mabilais-Esteves, began virtual meetings with Samuel*, an asylum seeker from Haiti, in March. Soon afterward, Samuel’s wife, Mirlande*, also started meeting with Mabilais-Esteves, and the three communicated weekly via WhatsApp, email, phone calls, and text. 

Mabilais-Esteves admits that remote tutoring has its downsides. “The more personal aspect of any relationship — whether it be tutoring, friendships, or family, is made more difficult,” she said. “But I feel that, regardless, I'm learning so much from and about my students, even remotely! Their commitment and dedication means so much, and I look forward to our lessons every time.”

Samuel told our team that the sessions have been helpful for him and Mirlande. “I really like working with Cecilia,” he explained, “she really helps us improve our level of English.”

These programs have given HIAS clients an important lifeline during the pandemic. “Our wraparound program has been instrumental in helping connect clients to the help they need, and have truly been the reason many of our clients have been able to weather this storm,” said Sarah Burrows, HIAS’ associate director of pro bono.

*Pseudonyms used for clients’ protection.

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