In 2016, as the Syrian refugee crisis was surging, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) processed 12,587 Syrian refugees entering the country. Shortly thereafter, however, the Trump administration slashed USRAP funding, sharply reducing the annual number of refugees permitted to enter. In 2018, the U.S. admitted only 62 Syrian refugees.
The nine U.S. refugee resettlement agencies, funded through government grants based on the number of refugees admitted, were forced to downsize. World Relief SoCal, Orange County’s only resettlement agency, shuttered its resettlement services.
“There were 23 resettlement offices in California prior to Trump; now there are 15,” said Martin Zogg, Executive Director of the International Rescue Committee’s Los Angeles office. “Ten to 20-times more refugees will be resettled in California in 2022 than 2021, [yet] we are experiencing a 35% decrease in capacity to serve new arrivals.”
In July 2016, I traveled to Greece to volunteer in a refugee camp overflowing with those who had fled Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and a number of conflict-ridden African countries. The squalid conditions in the camps left residents exposed to rats, malnutrition, attacks by locals and a merciless asylum system.
Self-inflicted harm and suicide attempts were pervasive, compounded by a lack of psycho-social care and the xenophobia of the surrounding population.
Upon returning to Orange County, I sought a network of volunteers and activists yearning to help refugees. With their support, I—together with Beth Katlen and Nancy Neudorf from Congregation B’nai Israel and Deb Siminou from Temple Bat Yahm—established the Orange County Jewish Coalition for Refugees.
OCJCR today is part of a national network of over 400 congregations and organizations committed to welcoming and assisting refugees in our communities. Fifteen local synagogues and Jewish nonprofits partner with OCJCR to raise awareness about the global refugee crisis, and to provide aid, funds and home hospitality in addition to working directly with locally resettled refugees and asylum seekers.
In 2018 OCJCR connected with local faith-based organizations with the same goals. One of these, Greater Los Angeles-based Home for Refugees USA (HFR), helped raise funds to resettle local refugee families and asylum seekers. Joint efforts include the Refugee Chef Test Kitchen program, which brought refugee families together with members of the Jewish community for delicious meals prepared by Afghan chefs; and a Tisha B’Av fundraiser, co-sponsored by the Jewish Collaborative of Orange County and Jewish Justice Advocates of Temple Beth El, to raise funds for World Relief SoCal, HFR, and the Haitian Bridge Alliance.
We have also engaged in a multi-year collaboration whereby HFR trains OCJCR volunteer teams to work with a refugee family for one year, helping them acclimate to their new home and providing mentoring toward self-sufficiency. These community sponsorship volunteer teams also help set up apartments for new arrivals, assist with resume preparation and job applications, provide transportation to and from interviews and medical appointments, provide adult ESL tutoring and more.
Over 5,000 Afghan refugees are expected to arrive to California in the coming weeks, and OCJCR and HFR are preparing to welcome them by training three more volunteer community sponsorship teams.
Resettlement agencies cannot accomplish the job alone and rely on community organizations like ours. We will need to identify additional channels of support for everything from renting storage space to obtaining furniture, appliances, clothing and more. Our volunteers are responding to the call, but more resources are needed.
To volunteer or donate please visit the OCJCR website or email OCJewishCoalitionforRefugees@gmail.com.
Jackie Menter is dedicated to helping refugees locally and abroad. From 2016-2018 she traveled to Greece to volunteer in refugee camps and detention centers where Middle Eastern and African refugee were seeking asylum. Jackie volunteered in refugee squats and camps providing humanitarian relief and first response aid to refugees arriving by boat. Jackie is Co-Founder of the Orange County Jewish Coalition for Refugees.