By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
A special Shabbat dinner on Dec. 22 celebrated one year since volunteers from Mishkan Chicago greeted a Syrian refugee family at O’Hare airport and made sure they felt comfortable in their new home.
For Mishkan, Lakeside Congregation, Temple Jeremiah and eight synagogues on a wait list, there will be no more refugees to welcome. Their co-sponsorships with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) Chicago have ended with the shuttering of a decades-old refugee resettlement program.
President Trump’s sharp reduction in the total number of refugees allowed into the country has terminated smaller programs like Chicago’s.
“When I got the call I was devastated,” said Rabbi Lauren Henderson of Mishkan, which has been paired with two refugee families, a Syrian and Iraqi. The volunteers have raised funds for rent, secured in-kind donations and helped find jobs, schools and tutored English.
“I’m still incredibly emotional and angry, mad and disappointed because I know how hard this community has worked, how ready and willing our Jewish community was to open their arms and share all of our resources to help some of the most at risk people on this planet,” Henderson said.
The work will continue at HIAS Chicago in immigration services and citizenship as it has for over a century, according to a statement released by HIAS Chicago. Distinct from immigrants, refugees have fled from their home country to escape war or persecution that can be proved.
“We will continue to explore new ways of serving individuals and families who have already been resettled or immigrated. Our commitment to social justice and welcoming the stranger remain as strong as ever,” the statement continued.
The State Department terminated contracts with any organization that resettled fewer than 100 refugees a year. According to HIAS President Mark Hetfield in New York, Chicago has many resettlement agencies and HIAS Chicago was one of the smaller sites.
HIAS Chicago had been approved to resettle 60 individual refugees in the 2017 fiscal year, ending September 30. They resettled 34 and six since the new fiscal year began, said Jessica Schaffer, director, HIAS Chicago. Nationally HIAS resettled 3,300 refugees with approval for 4,800 in fiscal year 2017.
In recent years, Jewish and non-Jewish families have come through HIAS Chicago from the former Soviet Union, Bosnia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq and Syria. In the past 40 years, HIAS Chicago, which is now a program of Jewish Children and Family Services, has assisted more than 40,000 immigrants and refugees.
The Trump administration established an unprecedented cap of 45,000 refugees in the fiscal year 2018. That is down down from 110,000 in the prior fiscal year. Some 53,000 refugees were resettled last year and nearly 85,000 the year before.
Schaffer said, “It is devastating for our program which has such a deep-rooted history in serving refugees. It also hurts our community to have this not be a core service we’re providing.”
This year, the Mishkan volunteer team helped resettle the Al-Hamadas from Syria and the Al-Obadis from Iraq.
Over 18 months, the synagogue had to raise a minimum of $5,000 per family and collect used furniture and home supplies. The team worked quickly. Typically, the turnaround is one to two weeks from the time HIAS is notified to the family’s day of arrival. At Mishkan, there are 40 individuals working with both families and a smaller team of mentors and tutors teaching English, how to navigate the public transit system, and other basic necessities.
The father of the Al Hamada family (parents in their twenties, with two boys, ages two and five) is now working at Selfhelp Home of Chicago in dining services. A Mishkan volunteer made the employment connection.
“In the past year and a half, the Jewish community has shown so much commitment and enthusiasm through our co-sponsorship program,” Schaffer said. Close to 400 synagogues nationwide signed up with 21 HIAS programs to help with welcoming refugees to cities.
Schaeffer is saddened for the refugees who are now unable to find a safe haven in the United States. “It’s certainly heartbreaking for families who have in some cases been sitting for many years in refugee camps waiting to be resettled in the U.S. who now may not have or will not have that opportunity because of changes in policy and the fact that programs are shutting down.”