Published October 12, 2007 in the Arizona Jewish Post.
When Tatyana Nemenman’s family left Kiev in 1992, fleeing anti-Semitism and the Chernobyl disaster, they arrived in Tucson to find welcome balloons at the airport and an apartment with a fully stocked refrigerator. Barred from attending university in the former Soviet Union, Nemenman enrolled in a pre-med program at Pima Community College with the help of Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Southern Arizona. When her grandmother passed away, JFCS made funeral arrangements and organized a celebration of her life. “The first couple of years,” says Nemenman, “without JFCS, we would not have survived. They were so warm, so welcoming.”
Through a partnership with the national Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), JFCS helped resettle more than 2,000 refugees within the past 18 years. The resettlement program provided language instruction, citizenship application, housing, skills-building and job placement, and assistance with the adjustment to life in American society. Often, volunteers opened their homes to the new immigrants. The job placement program boasted a 94 percent success rate.
Within recent years, the resettlement program faced an uphill battle in reconciling dwindling funds with the rising cost of services. In the aftermath of 9/11, the reduction in number of refugees allowed into the country drastically reduced the federal funds upon which the program relied. The agency now faced a heartbreaking decision: continue to provide services at a far lower quality level, or end the program altogether. After lengthy deliberation, JFCS concluded that if the agency was unable to render the quality of service it felt clients deserved, the program would have to be disbanded.
Staff and volunteers express a mixture of pride in the program’s achievements and sorrow over its inability to remain operable. Carol Sack, chief development officer at JFCS, says, “We have been honored and privileged to have participated in refugee resettlement throughout the years we’ve been doing it. It was with great regret that we made this very hard decision.”
CEO Lois Manowitz shares the sentiment. “The agency made a very difficult, painful decision to no longer do refugee resettlement, but we are extraordinarily proud of the program’s history.” She describes the program as “the fulfillment of one of the best Jewish values upon which our mission was based: tikkun olam, or repairing the world.”
The resettlement program leaves behind a long and diverse legacy. Initially, the program aided Jewish immigrants fleeing the former Soviet Union. When these immigrants stopped coming, JFCS extended its services to non-Jewish refugees from Bosnia, Burma, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Liberia, and Burundi.
Recently, JFCS has devoted many of its services to the Lost Boys of Sudan, who walked hundreds of miles to escape civil war. Among them is 22-year-old Bior Keech, a business economics senior at the University of Arizona. At 17, Bior began the long, treacherous journey that brought him first to Kenya, and eventually to Tucson. Of the resettlement program, he recalls, “It was great. They really welcomed us.” He remembers the volunteers with special fondness. “They were one of the things that made our experience a lot better,” he says, during the initial culture shock of coming to the United States. Bior plans to attend graduate school, and to use his education to help improve the economic situation in Sudan as well as to educate Americans about the country’s plight.
Among the volunteers who helped Bior is Jill Rich, who has volunteered for all of the program’s 18 years and has mentored 94 refugees. Rich was immediately captivated by the story of the Lost Boys and has worked intensively with them. She and her husband, Jim, have hosted many of the Lost Boys in their home, leading her to become known as “the ‘mom’ of the group.” For the last six years, Rich reports, “we’ve had a full house.” At first, the Lost Boys’ rural background meant little familiarity with modern technology. Painstakingly, the young men had to learn how to use the stove, refrigerator and can opener — not to mention the computer. None of these challenges stymied them in their desire for an education, and many have achieved outstanding academic success.
While no longer accepting new refugees as of this month, the program continues to work with its current clients while transitioning them to other agencies. Although the program is drawing to a close, the relationships forged between staff, volunteers and the refugees continue to have a lasting impact. Like many volunteers, Rich keeps in touch with her former clients. “They’re very much a part of what I’ll always do,” she says.
Valerie Saturen received her M.A. in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Arizona in 2007. She lives in Tucson.