Preparing to support refugees in the community is a long, complicated process. Hope Koturo, who is heading the outreach effort for the United Synagogue of Hoboken, has learned this lesson well.
“We’ve spent at least two years in preparatory work,” she said, adding that the synagogue “still has a long way to go.
“Our synagogue is very involved in social justice issues, and we’ve had many conversations within the community about this,” she said. In 2016, Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, the shul’s religious leader since 1997, sent out an email looking for someone to lead such a project.
While Hoboken itself does not have many refugees — “It’s way too expensive” to live there, Ms. Koturo said — neighboring Jersey City does have a large immigrant community.
“We began by wanting to support a refugee family,” she said. “But we knew if we offered support, we’d really have to be there. Since few congregants could offer that kind of commitment, the group decided to approach the issue in a different way.
“We tried to raise awareness of refugees’ needs in our congregation,” Ms. Koturo said. She cited, as an example, a Shabbaton featuring the president of HIAS, Mark Hetfield, who came to speak about the refugee crisis and resettlement. The congregation also got in touch wtih First Friends of New Jersey and New York, which, according to its website, “upholds the inherent dignity and humanity of detained immigrants and asylum seekers.” The group offers volunteer visitation, resettlement assistance, and advocacy, helping to get people out of detention.
In 2017, First Friends helped create the Lighthouse, which provides temporary housing for immigrants who have been released from detention, people “who were forced to flee persecution in their home countries due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.” Lighthouse’s goal is to house five guests at a time; immigrants would go there after being released from one of four detention facilities in New Jersey. “Often, these released individuals have spent upwards of six months to a year languishing in detention, even though they have never committed a crime,” the group’s website says.
Ms. Koturo said that one way the synagogue can contribute to this effort is by becoming a congregational partner of the Lighthouse, providing it with supplies. This, she said, involves both financial support and volunteerism. The shul also invited the Rev. Deacon Jill Singleton, a staff member at the Church of the Incarnation, where the Lighthouse is based, to address the congregation, together with some of the residents living at the facility.
Following a “natural progression,” Ms. Koturo reached out to the Church World Service in Jersey City, a nonprofit agency working to resettle refugees in New Jersey.
“We’re trying to figure out how to work with them,” she said. “We have held catered dinners sponsored by the congregation,” where meals were cooked by a Kurdish refugee and a woman from Eritrea. So far, dinners have been held at a synagogue in Jersey City, an art gallery in Hoboken, and in people’s homes. Proceeds from the dinners are donated directly to the refugees.
“We’ve also started to do some ESL tutoring, as well as a stationery drive with First Friends,” Ms. Koturo continued. “People in detention centers have no way to communicate with friends and family. We create folders of stationery and stamps that are given to these refugees. We meet with them once a week.”
In addition to these activities — and efforts such as participating in a nationally simulcast screening of the documentary “Human Flow” — “we have members of the community who are actively supporting recently resettled families.”
That cohort includes United Synagogue member Bess Morrison, who, together with her husband, Fred Miller, is actively involved with Welcome Home Jersey City, an all-volunteer organization devoted to helping newly arrived refugees and asylees begin their lives in the greater Jersey City area.
By partnering with local government, businesses, and nonprofits, the group helps people who have been resettled by the Church World Service, cleaning and furnishing apartments for new arrivals in Jersey City, teaching ESL classes, providing individual tutoring and support, giving them donated items, and doing whatever else needs doing.
“After the last election, we were looking to give back and we knew people tutoring refugees in English in Jersey City,” Ms. Morrison said. “I was trying to figure out how to do this. Finally, I realized that there were lots of ways to help incoming refugees.” Among them was helping to set up an apartment, and she volunteered to do that. “I have a flexible schedule, so I could move the family in,” she said; she is a singer, a cantorial soloist, and a piano and voice teacher, so she can arrange her schedule to find the time to help when needed.
Since she already had started to develop a relationship with the newly moved family — parents and three children from Eritrea — “I offered to take them as the people I’m tutoring.” Almost immediately, she learned that no one had registered the children for school. “Somebody told CWS that they couldn’t get registered until they had a permanent address,” she said. “They got here in April and they hadn’t been in school for two months. I asked, ‘How can they not be in school?’ and I took it upon myself to get them registered.”
As it happened, the school told her that it wasn’t true about needing a permanent address. If that were the case, homeless children could not get an education. “It was a miscommunication, but it’s been fixed, though they may have lost an extra year of school,” Ms. Morrison said.
In addition to tutoring the children, Ms. Morrison “helped find a job for the dad. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out,” due mainly to difficulty in communication. She will try again. She has also signed one of the children up for a soccer team.
Ms. Morrison said that she has become friendly with the Eritrean family, “and they’ve become part of our extended family.” Inevitably, she said, there is some imbalance in the relationship, “because they need a lot of things. I help as much as I can.” She and her husband practiced interview techniques with the father, and discussed such issues as “how to deal with your boss.” While Ms. Morrison hasn’t worked with many other families, “everyone pitched in when two families were burnt out by a bad fire. I took one family to see an apartment.”
United Synagogue member Razel Solow of Hoboken has been teaching ESL to the children in the Eritrean family for a year. “After Trump won the 2016 election, I felt motivated to choose volunteer work that would directly affect the issues that I felt he was hurting,” she said. “I’d volunteered for most of my life, but at that point I wanted to choose something that I thought would counteract his detrimental policies.”
During her training, “I was told not to ask about the refugees’ past experiences because it was probably highly traumatic. So I didn’t. However, I work with children, and some of their prior life reveals itself as we work together. I work with two boys, who are intelligent, hardworking, motivated, cheerful, and delightful. We have a lot of fun.”
Ms. Solow said that the work she is doing is important because “the history of the U.S. is the history of immigrants. My grandparents emigrated from Lithuania to Canada, but they shared the same experience as American immigrants. If you’ve studied history, you’ll know that the immigrant experience, especially for refugees, has been full of profound challenges and enormous adjustment.
“I’m grateful that Canada and the U.S. gave my persecuted Jewish ancestors a safe place to live. I want to do the same for others.”
The experience of working with the family makes her happy, she said. “The boys are so positive about the ESL experience that I feel grateful. It makes me happy. They have an ESL class in school, but getting one-on-one experience is invaluable. They make that clear by asking me to come to their home for lessons even when they have days off from school. We work through the summer, too. I always ask the boys directly whether they want a day off on holidays. They decide for themselves; they aren’t pressured by their parents. Also, the boys’ parents are always hospitable, offering food, coffee, etc.”
Addressing the issue of cultural challenges, “I wouldn’t call it a challenge, per se,” Ms. Solow said. “I’ve had to help them understand, however, that just because someone knocks on your door — for example, a salesperson — they don’t have to let strangers into their home. They had an incident where salespeople were preying on their lack of cultural knowledge and poor English skills. I intervened, but they were still vulnerable. They are so naturally hospitable that they fell for the same sales pitch twice, even after I explained what was happening.
“By helping these refugees and others through the United Synagogue of Hoboken’s Refugee Support Committee’s activities, I’ve gotten a much more detailed understanding of how difficult it is to move to a new country,” she continued. And now, “I’m even more empathetic to the plight of recent refugees and asylum seekers in the U.S.”
Ms. Koturo said that the next step for the synagogue is “to decide how much we can feasibly do. Should our contribution be financial? One-off volunteerism? ESL? Soup to nuts?” She is excited about the synagogue’s partnership with such organizations as Church World Service, “which contacts us when a need arises.” Volunteers have received training “where we talked about boundaries” and setting a timeline. “I’m not sure what we’ll do yet,” she said. “Maybe we won’t take a family right off the airplane but take a family that needs non-crisis help.”
Volunteer Simone Crespi, who has been working on the refugee support project for more than a year, said, “There is something about refugees’ seeking safety that resonates deeply in me. We all saw the image of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler whose little body washed up on shore in Turkey back in 2015. At that point, I knew I couldn’t keep quiet and that I had to do something, but at that time didn’t know what to do.
“In addition, I am acutely aware that my grandmother fled Nazi Germany. Her beloved sister was murdered in Auschwitz. A lot of the rhetoric that was employed to exclude Jews from the U.S. in the 1940s is similar to the language used now. I am deeply motivated by my conscience to take action and be for someone now what others couldn’t be for the Jews of the 1940s.” And, she added, “In these tough times, I want my children to know that there is always something you can do to make life better and to improve our community. I want them to know in their heart of hearts that their mother did something to make the world a better place.”
Right now, Ms. Crespi said, she is working directly with one Syrian Kurdish family. “The main surprise has been how happy and optimistic the family is,” she said. They’re genuinely happy to be here, despite obvious challenges and a difficult path. In particular, the older daughter, 20 years old, is such a bubbly, happy, optimistic person. Considering how much she has gone through, including the death of her father in Turkey, she’s so enthusiastic about life and being here. Spending time with refugees really drives home that what is being debated on a national and international level affects real people who are not at all the way detractors portray them.
“Having worked with this family, and some asylum seekers as well, allows me to more personally push back on some of the rhetoric I hear. It also make me much more passionate in what I do.” And, she added, “getting involved in refugee support work has opened my eyes to all the wonderful grassroots work that is being done on the interconnected issues of immigration, asylum seekers, and refugees.
“There are so many wonderful people who are active and working diligently for the betterment of our communities.”