By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News

The asylum seekers are dropped off by bus in the middle of the night in an unfamiliar city without so much as a meal or shelter to sustain them or a means to get to their final destination.

That’s where Jewish Family Service of San Diego steps in. And it’s how Chicago Jews can help. The San Diego affiliate of HIAS has assisted more than 17,000 of these asylum-seekers who have been initially processed and released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody.

Upon release, these families, who do not speak English, have no money, no cellphones and no tickets to travel. Many are also sick and dehydrated. They are at great risk of becoming victims of human trafficking or ending up on the street. 

The JFS of San Diego, part of the San Diego Rapid Response Network, operates a migrant family shelter that provides meals, medical care, legal services, and travel aid to 300 individuals; nearly 60-70 families a day.

To help agencies like JFS that are responding to the crisis of people massing at or crossing the southern border, the Jewish Federation of Chicago has begun the Fund for Asylum Seekers.

“We are opening the Jewish Federation Fund for Asylum Seekers after hearing from many members of our community who were anguished about the situation,” said Bill Silverstein, Chair of JUF’s Jewish Community Relations Council. “The Torah teaches that when we see a person in crisis, we cannot turn away—and there can be no doubt that there is a crisis at our nation’s southern border.”

The fund, which has surpassed $30,000, will support three organizations that are providing relief on the ground: JFS of San Diego; the Young Center, a Chicago-based case management agency for unaccompanied and separated children; and RAICES, which provides free and low-cost legal services to asylum seekers and refugees at its five Texas offices.

This comes at a time when the government is dealing with an unprecedented number of migrant families and children who are arriving each day at the southern border. Customs and Border Protection has detained nearly 700,000 in the past eight months. Children are particularly vulnerable: on any given day, more than 2,000 children, including those separated from their parents, are housed in detention facilities. Detention centers continue to be overcrowded and underserved.

Daniel Goldwin, JUF Executive Director of Public Affairs, likens the situation to the Jewish refugee experience. “This is the 80th anniversary of the St. Louis,” Goldwin said of the ship with 937 Jewish refugees denied entry by U.S. immigration authorities in the lead up to the Holocaust. “And so, when it comes to people seeking asylum, this is something that I think the Jewish community understands in a very profound and deep way. Anybody that doesn’t understand why we are doing this doesn’t have grandparents or great-grandparents. I think that’s what really touched home here for the Jewish community of Chicago.”

All money collected is going to direct assistance to the asylum seekers such as legal counsel or guidance for a child, minor or families.

The Young Center protects and advances the rights and best interest of immigrant children who arrive at the southern border. They are children fleeing from relentless violence, persecution and/or extreme poverty and simply want to be safe.

“The Young Center is grateful for the support and partnership of several faith-based and interfaith organizations,” said Executive Director Maria Woltjen. “Communities like the Chicago Jewish Federation provide critical support and make it possible to advocate for immigrant children, especially in these times. It’s inspiring to see people from different backgrounds unite to protect children’s rights.”

Shana Hazan, director of philanthropy for Jewish Family Services of San Diego, recently spoke to a JUF audience in Chicago. “It was an honor to speak about our impactful work. I was thrilled when they announced we would be a beneficiary of their new Fund for Asylum Seekers. The Torah instructs us to ‘welcome the stranger’ 36 times, far more than it commands us to observe the Sabbath or any other law,” said Hazan, who once taught in the Chicago Public Schools. “As an agency guided by Jewish values, we are proud of our work to meet the needs of refugees and asylum-seekers for more than 100 years. Like JUF, we are committed to welcoming the stranger because we are Jewish, not because the clients we serve are.”

To donate to JUF’s Fund for Asylum Seekers, call  312-444-2869, go online at www.juf.org/asylum, or send a check payable to: Jewish Federation Fund for Asylum Seekers,  30 S. Wells St., #3015, Chicago, IL 60606. 

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