Welcoming the Stranger

August 28, 2014
By Avi Rose

This summer at JFCS East Bay, we’ve been struck by an unexpected and entirely welcome wave of new immigrants seeking refuge in our community.

During this program year, we were projected to resettle a maximum of sixty refugees. As I write this post, the total has reached eighty-nine, and just this week we were contacted about seven more. And the year is far from over.

What happened?

  • There is a surge of people who worked as translators with U.S. personnel in Afghanistan who are now threatened, feeling panicked, and needing to flee as U.S. forces withdraw. These refugees are often highly traumatized and come to us filled with expectations about what life will be like in the United States. In concrete ways, we help them deal with the reality of building new lives in a new country. Some are coming with large families; in one case, we needed multiple volunteers and vehicles to accommodate the two parents and their six children when we picked them up at the airport!
  • Persecution, violence toward, and torture of LGBT individuals continues unabated throughout the world and is in fact escalating in many countries. This summer we welcomed gay refugees from Congo and Burundi, and we just got word of our next arrival from Uganda, a man who has experienced serious ongoing trauma and will need specialized support when he joins us here.
  • Iraqi families are winding their way through the labyrinthine resettlement process after many years in limbo, trying to find a new home country where they can resume their lives. They are subject to intense security scrutiny and, while many Americans welcome them here, others distance themselves out of their own prejudices and misconceptions. We help these refugees connect with a supportive community and begin to navigate their new lives.

This summer, many of our new refugee clients are children, ranging in age from three months to thirteen years. Most speak Farsi or Arabic and are now preparing for their first experience in American schools. Our staff and volunteers have been busy gathering school supplies for these kids, doing our part to get them off to a good start. It’s a long road ahead for these families as the children get acculturated to school culture in the U.S., which is exciting and essential, though inevitably creates distance between them and the older generations in their families. It’s a very familiar immigrant story.

As I reflect on the summer, I am struck with what a privilege it is to do this work, honoring our own refuge-seeking ancestors by extending ourselves to this new generation of immigrants. How fortunate we are to embrace these newcomers and build enduring relationships with new families and communities. And what a magnificent challenge to ensure that these people are given the full respect and opportunities to succeed that they so richly deserve.