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Safety Net

JFCS Refugee Team Photo from left to right:
Sande Hart, Valeriia Lazarieva, Jackie Menter, Trip Oldfield, Fahima Zarbafiyan, Christopher Luaces

Resettlement program offers lifeline to newcomers

More than 110 million people worldwide have been forcibly displaced from their homes by persecution, conflict, violence, and human rights violations. The number has doubled in the last decade.
    While most people trying to flee war and persecution end up in a neighboring country or become Internally Displaced Persons who have been relocated within their own country, the lucky ones reach the United States. Still, When they are picked up at the airport, they need everything – temporary housing, permanent housing, food, education, jobs, acculturation, and financial literacy.
    Such was the case of Omid Salman, who worked for the US Embassy in Afghanistan. His work with the US government which qualified him and his wife, Fahima Zarbafiyan, to apply for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program. The couple applied for SIV status, then waited several years before their case was accepted, and moved to the U.S.
    Zarbafiyan met Jackie Menter, then co-founder and, subsequently, executive director of the Orange County Jewish Coalition for Refugees (OCJCR), at a gathering for Afghan immigrants in Orange County. According to Salman, “Jackie has been a source of support and assistance for us. She helped us get some furniture from a family who was in touch with her. Later on, she invited us to deliver speeches during an event to remember Tisha B’Av, where we shared a history of Jews in Afghanistan, specifically Herat city, and the story of our escape from Afghanistan after the fall of state to the Taliban. With her support and coordination, we also got to know more individuals and organizations.”

Heart to Home volunteers
Bill Driscoll and Beth Katlen

  Menter “always wanted to do first-response humanitarian work and had time available. In 2016 a colleague shared a post about volunteer work on the Greek Island of Chios with nursing and pregnant women who had been displaced. She saw it as “a mitzvah to help strangers that brought so much to my own life.” It was a perfect opportunity for Menter, who had been a childbirth instructor years earlier, and a volunteer with HIAS. More than one hundred years ago, the Jewish community founded HIAS (originally the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) in New York City, the immigrant gateway to America. Today, Menter is in the thick of a reiteration of that program that serves refugees from all over the world.
    After going on several one-month trips to Chios, Menter co-founded OCJCR. Since 2018 OCJCR has engaged OC and Long Beach Jewish organizations and volunteers to support refugees and asylum seekers, engaged in pro-refugee advocacy, and opened their hearts and homes to those seeking refuge in the U.S. OCJCR was among the first organizations in the country to participate in private sponsorship of refugees in partnership with the HIAS Welcome Circle program, and co-sponsored refugee families in collaboration with Home for Refugees. Some 150 OCJCR volunteers helped resettle 70 individuals from seven Ukrainian and eleven Afghan families.
    Meanwhile, in August 2023, the Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Long Beach & West Orange County (JFCS), in partnership with OCJCR, was approved as a new Refugee Resettlement site by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM). In late 2023, OCJCR merged into JFCS. Menter was hired as JFCS’s Director of Refugee and Resettlement Services. The agency re-launched the JFCS refugee program after a 29-year hiatus. The resettlement program began serving refugee arrivals from overseas and opened the doors to its new offices in Orange County as a HIAS affiliate in January 2024. This will make JFCS Orange County’s third and newest refugee resettlement agency. Last April the OC Board of Supervisors approved the launch of the new Office of Refugee and Immigrant Affairs as a county program that will help immigrant newcomers to find direct service providers.

Heart to Home Warehouse

    “Starting a new program from scratch is hard, so it made sense to merge and build on the momentum both organizations had,” explained Trip Oldfield, Chief Executive Officer of JFCS. 
    With a budget of $1.1 million, based on grants and donations, the JFCS refugee program began welcoming the first of 150 refugees in February. The resettlement program will provide comprehensive case management to newcomer families for a minimum of 3 to 6 months. Between January and September 2024 it will be resettling 150 refugees arriving directly from overseas, as well as an additional 150 Ukrainian and Afghan clients who have already arrived in Orange County.
    There will be many opportunities for volunteers to partner with the organization in accomplishing this sacred and life-changing work. Volunteer roles will include: job search support and employment assistance, in-depth and ongoing cultural orientation, enrolling clients in medical services, setting up bank accounts and selecting medical insurance programs, provision of donated furniture and household goods, enrolling clients in ESL classes and vocational support, enrolling children in schools, food/groceries assistance, transportation assistance, mobile phone assistance, and social gatherings and celebrations.
    As Menter explained, The HIAS Welcome Circle program was one of the first iterations of private sponsorship of refugees in the U.S. Working on that program as a HIAS Welcome Circle consultant Menter explained, “We were figuring it out as we were going.”
    There was a humanitarian crisis on the ground with 80,000 Afghans languishing on U.S. military bases, who had been evacuated to the U.S. within a period of weeks after the fall of their country. The U.S. resettlement system was not equipped to handle a sudden influx of 80,000 refugees. In response to the need, in partnership with the government, resettlement agencies launched a private sponsorship program as they were building it. HIAS Welcome Circles was one of the first iterations of private sponsorship opportunities where volunteers could receive training and begin resettling refugees in lieu of agency case managers, who were overwhelmed and could not meet the demand.
    Following the Welcome Circle private sponsorship model, refugee co-sponsorship programs soon evolved, and are now becoming a staple of the U.S. resettlement infrastructure. Volunteers form co-sponsorship teams, are trained by experts, and then work in partnership with resettlement agencies in this model. The end result is that refugees receive much needed additional support and care to help them as they rebuild their new lives. JFCS will be launching a co-sponsorship program in the coming weeks.
    “It’s a thrill working with families to help them to build their new lives here,” Menter concluded.
Contact:
Jewish Family & Children’s Service
Long Beach Office
3801 East Willow Street, Long Beach, CA 90815
Phone:  (562) 427-7916, Fax:  (562) 427-7910
Email: RefugeeProgram@jfcslboc.org
Resettlement Office
Phone:  (714) 881-8835
Santa Ana, CA 92705   

Ilene Schneider has been chronicling Jewish life in Orange County for five publications since 1978. She has served as a communications consultant for a number of Jewish organizations. She is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.

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