Gathering for Good

December 07, 2015
By Lauren Greenberg

Lauren Greenberg is JFCS East Bay’s Development Assistant. She shares some reflections on a recent orientation for people interested in volunteering with the agency.


no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark . . .
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.
no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
—from “Home” by Warsan Shire

This holiday season has been punctuated by escalating tumult in the Middle East, engaging the United States in an impassioned national debate that’s shaping our response to the global refugee crisis. Unnervingly bleak and misleading headlines dominate the media. People everywhere are struggling to make heads or tails of our world, yet on a recent Wednesday evening in Walnut Creek, nine Bay Area residents gathered to learn what they could do to help.

“I came from Redwood City,” offered Victor apologetically, referring to his minor lateness. “But I’m here,” driven by his own experience as “a new immigrant negotiating life in a foreign country.” He works as a physician.

Victor was responding to a prompt from Kathryn Winogura who has been the Volunteer Coordinator for JFCS East Bay for almost twenty years. Her question to the group was: “What makes you care about refugees?”

“I have a four-year-old daughter,” said Courtney, an Iowa transplant living in Contra Costa County. “When I saw that picture of the little boy facedown on the beach, the one with the UN worker? Well, my husband is from Bangladesh, and so my daughter . . .” she paused, swallowing brimming tears, “looked like that little boy.”

For Jackie, a newly retired special education teacher, it’s “very personal.” She is Jewish and had family who “were refugees trying to escape Europe in the Second World War.”

What became clear from hearing these stories around the table was that each participant had a personal connection that compelled them to act on behalf of refugees; they sought out JFCS East Bay as a local organization already doing the work.

“Who are the people we’ll be potentially volunteering with?” asked Kate, who had come with her husband from Alameda. “Are there whole families that move, or is it mostly individuals?”

“Most of the people we are helping to resettle lately come from Afghanistan,” Kathryn explained, “and those are often families with many young children.”

Currently, JFCS East Bay is extremely involved in resettling Afghan refugees who served as translators for the U.S. military in Afghanistan. These brave young men are able to obtain Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) in order to bring themselves and their families to safety. Two such families are scheduled to arrive for resettlement in January.

“There is no doubt that financial support is crucial to these people’s success,” continued Kathryn. “We all know that the Bay Area is an incredibly expensive place to live, and housing is in short supply, but there is so much that our volunteers can do to make new refugees feel welcome.” For example, helping new arrivals learn the transportation system, showing them the community, helping them learn how to shop, and being supportive friends are some of the activities trained volunteers can provide.

Donations of furniture, basic appliances, children’s bicycles, beds, and cribs for families are also needed. “But even collecting toiletries like lotion, shaving supplies, and facial tissue are wonderful,” Kathryn added, “because then when a new family comes, we can hand them the package of goodies and say ‘Welcome Home.’”

Dan, who was a JFCS East Bay board member decades ago, asked “What about children’s books, both for small kids and for the parents to learn English? I am on a library board and we have a collection coming up.” Kathryn smiled and nodded, making a note to connect with Dan after the meeting. It went on like that for the remainder of our time together: people buzzing with ways they could help, involve their networks, and confront a seemingly insurmountable issue right in their own communities.

The volunteers eventually dispersed after exchanging contact information, and Kathryn and I straightened up. “Isn’t it great what I get to do?” she asked, beaming. “No matter what’s happening in the world, I get all the helpers.”

It was great, and it was honestly a relief to be reminded that wherever there is chaos, good, compassionate people will emerge to help. As I drove back to Oakland, I thought about a passage in the Talmud I often hearken back to when I feel overwhelmed: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”