Washington-Area Congregations Forge Partnerships To Support Refugees

By Sara Nathan, Guest Contributor

“Chala,” which means auntie in Arabic, is what the three Syrian children call Liana Brook-Rubin whenever she and her sons take the refugee family to the swimming pool or park.

“Chala Liana,” she said. “My heart swells every time I hear this. It does feel, and has since early on to many of us volunteers, as though we have reconnected with members of an extended family.”

Among the six million refugees forced to flee the ongoing civil war which has consumed their country for the past six years, the Syrian family of five arrived in Silver Spring, Md. in April and are being supported by Adas Israel Congregation. Adas Israel is one of 11 Washington area congregations who are preparing or have already welcomed primarily Muslim refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and the Congo over the last year.

HIAS, which resettled more than 4,000 refugees across the United States in 2016, has motivated and united 35 synagogues in the Washington-area to join its Welcome Campaign, but the agency does not resettle refugees in Greater Washinton. So congregations partner with the International Rescue Committee or Lutheran Social Services, forming interfaith partnerships. Tifereth Israel Congregation in Washington also works with a Syrian family resettled by the Ethiopian Community Development Council.

Gene Herman, who is leading Tifereth Israel’s team, invited the Syrian family with four children to the Takoma Park Fourth of July parade and lunch at his family home. The Syrian family invited seven volunteers to lunch at their apartment where they ate stuffed grape leaves and spinach and cheese filled dumplings.

“More people wanted to help but we realized that we can’t overwhelm them,” Herman said.

Pairs of high school students from Temple Sinai in Washington are spending five hours each day this summer interacting with seven and eight-year-old girls from Afghanistan whose parents, four-year old brother and five month-old baby arrived in May and now live in Silver Spring, Md.

“The girls are learning English, they are reading, doing arts and crafts, riding bikes, and going bowling,” said Andrea Dettelbach, one of the Temple Sinai volunteers. “The adults in our congregation are thrilled to help this family become accustomed to life in America.”

Members of Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va., began sponsoring a mother and twin sons from Iran and Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Md. welcomed a family of six from Syria in 2016 after seeing photos of refugees fleeing airstrikes and seeking safety in capsizing ferryboats.

After HIAS held outreach events at Temple Micah, Washington Hebrew Congregation, and Adas Israel in Washington, other congregations signed up to support refugees.

“Washington area congregations tend to be politically involved and globally aware so that makes people attuned to the refugee crisis,” said Sarah Beller, HIAS’s community engagement director for the greater Washington area. “People are motivated by their own families’ experiences and the Jewish values of welcoming strangers.”

Interfaith Partnerships

The Temple Shalom group furnished an apartment in Riverdale, Md., helped enroll the children in school, accompanied the family to doctor’s appointments, helped the father find work in a restaurant and aided the mother in setting up a home-based business selling cookies.

When one of the daughters was in the hospital after she fell off a bike, a Temple Shalom volunteer brought the family dinner and played with the younger children. Another volunteer bought the family six handmade quilts and a note translated into Arabic that read, “The friendship and love of an entire community is sewn into these quilts. If you feel cold or lonely in the days and months ahead, please wrap a quilt around you. Take comfort in knowing all the people who contributed to these quilts wish you well.”

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The Syrian family had never met Jews and many of the Temple Shalom volunteers had not had much contact with Muslims.

“To have such a strong relationship and to feel like these people are now our friends has been fabulous,” said Karen Green, a HIAS board member and co-chair of Temple Shalom's Refugee Response Team.

Lutheran Social Services, which resettled 1,100 refugees in the Washington-area this year, has matched or is waiting to match refugee families with 11 synagogues and 19 churches and has paired another 50 refugees with individuals who volunteer as mentors.

“Those families receive an incredible amount of support, much more than we could provide in 90 days of working with an assigned case manager,” said Mira Mendick, Community Resource Coordinator for Refugee & Immigrant Services at Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area. “It frees up our case managers to be more involved with other clients and assist more people.”

Refugee families supported by congregations in the Washington area declined to be interviewed or photographed for this story because of concern that speaking out could impact the safety of relatives in their home countries.

While refugees struggle to adapt to their new community, synagogue volunteers balance a desire to provide for a family’s needs while encouraging them to become self-sufficient. Initially, volunteers might give a refugee family donated winter clothes, but later bring them to a thrift store where they could go shopping for their own clothes. Volunteers also temper their desire to make recommendations about job offers with the awareness that the newly arrived refugees are used to making their own decisions.

Initially, Jewish volunteers had to search for stores that sell Halal meat, but the refugee families begin buying their own groceries three weeks after their arrival. Most of the newly arrived refugees resettled by LSS and IRC in the Washington area are Muslim, leading to interfaith partnerships with synagogues, and churches, including Quaker and Unitarian congregations.

Linda Weller and most of the other volunteers at Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, Va. had never attended an iftar marking the end of Ramadan fasting until the Afghan family sponsored by her congregation invited them to a homemade meal.

“We have to build bridges between Muslims and Jews in this country and this is one small piece of that bridge,” Weller said. “Before we would sit around and talk about who we are and what we stand for. Now we have been able to act.”

Another interfaith partnership has been thriving in Maryland at Bethesda Jewish Congregation, which shares its building with Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church, and joined with the church and Idara-e-Jaferia Islamic Center of Burtonsville, Md., to sponsor an Afghan family with six and two-year-old boys who arrived in April.

Volunteers from all three faiths helped the family find housing, enroll the older boy in school and summer camp and helped the father obtain a driver’s license, car, and a job in heating and air conditioning repair. The mosque invited the Afghan family and all the members of the volunteer team to attend an iftar dinner at the mosque.

Members of the three-congregation team have become friends and are recruiting new volunteers. “People have come out of the woodwork,” said Evelyn Ganzglass, a volunteer with Bethesda Jewish Congregation. “There are lots more who keep asking, ‘How can I help?’ and for each stage of the process there are new people who step in.”

The most rewarding, Ganzglass said, is seeing the six-year-old’s English skills develop as he interacts with American children at camp and begins talking about superhero action figures. “We had only heard him say ‘yes’ and ‘no,’” she said. “Now that he is going to camp he says, ‘This is Batman’ and ‘This is Spiderman.”               

Still Waiting

Other area congregations were prompted to sponsor refugee families in January after President Trump signed an executive order banning refugee admissions for 120 days, reducing the number of refugee admissions for this fiscal year to 50,000 from 110,000, and prohibiting the entry of foreign nationals from specific Muslim-majority countries for 90 days.

“A lot of synagogues wanted to help refugees face-to-face and the fact that this ban came between them and their efforts really galvanized their congregations,” Beller said. “It really offended our American values and our Jewish values.”          

As the number of new arrivals slowed this spring, teams of volunteers from Temple Emmanuel in Kensington, Md., Ohr Kodesh in Chevy Chase and Adat Shalom in Bethesda are collecting furniture and kitchen supplies and waiting to be matched with refugee families.

Members of Adat Shalom completed training with LSS in May and are prepared to be matched with a newly arrived family. “By that time, we had 70 members volunteering to help—more than enough for one refugee family, hopefully geared up to help more as they are assigned to us,” Adat Shalom Volunteer Evi Rezmovic said.

In the meantime, smaller groups at Adat Shalom congregation have applied to the IRC to mentor refugees who arrived in the country earlier and need additional support with learning English and adapting to the community.

“A lot of our clients feel isolated because after their workday ends, they come home and sit in their apartments,” said Samantha Musson, the IRC’s family Mentorship Coordinator. “For someone who is not comfortable with their English ability it is so nice to feel that there is someone to care about you and help you.”

The IRC, which resettled 500 refugees and 400 asylees in the Washington area this year, has matched 12 refugee families from Afghanistan, the Congo and Syria  this year with small groups of volunteers who commit to spending two hours a week interacting with refugees over a six-month period. Five more groups are waiting to be paired with refugees, Musson said.

As members of Temple Micah are preparing to support a refugee family, they have been meeting to discuss housing, furnishing and other needs and more members of the congregation have become involved, Martha Adler said.

“I know the leadership of our congregation and I know who comes to events and volunteers, and its often the same people time after time,” Adler, a Temple Micah volunteer, said. “Now there are all these new people who are ready to step up and become leaders and they are making friends and doing the work. The refugee crisis has inspired us to say, ‘This is something we really need to do together as Jews.’" 

Sara Nathan is co-chair of Temple Shalom’s Refugee Response Team. She contributed to “Our Journey From Syria to America,” an illustrated story told through the eyes of one of the Syrian refugee children supported by her congregation.

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