San Diego could hardly be more different from the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement.
When Sebazira Amatutule, a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, arrived in California on June 10, 2015, after spending nearly two decades in a refugee camp in Uganda, he found a world where the rules were foreign to him, often in ways that surprised and pleased him.
“In Africa, you can’t move,” he said in a recent interview. “You’re supposed to have your ID, and people are supposed to know where are you going. But here, you just have your bus pass, you board your bus, not even the driver is asking you where you’re going, you just stop, you go out and you reach home.”
Though thrilled with his newfound freedom, Amatutule at first found the new rules bewildering. He needed somebody to teach him how to cross the street, how to use the bus, how to shop at the market.
Amatutule is neither Iraqi nor Syrian. Nonetheless, his story is typical of the challenges and logistical acrobatics required in plucking an individual from one part of the world as a candidate for immigration to the United States.
Refugees hoping to come to the U.S. are heavily vetted before getting permission to enter; many wait three years for their application to be processed. According to officials, if Tashfeen Malik, the Pakistani-born San Bernardino terrorist who with her husband killed 14 people, had tried to enter the U.S. as a refugee rather than with a fiancée visa, she would have had a much longer wait and more than likely the vetting process would have disqualified her.
Settling refugees here can also be a yearslong commitment.
And that’s where Jewish Family Service (JFS) of San Diego comes in. Along with a handful of other Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, Jewish Family Service branches are offering crucial initial help to refugees — whether from Africa, Asia or Syria or Iraq — in finding homes and establishing a life for their families the U.S.
San Diego’s JFS is among those on the ground floor of an international operation seeking to resettle refugees currently living in dangerous or squalid conditions. When Amatutule arrived, for example, the nonprofit connected him with a case manager, who helped him enroll his two children in elementary school, enrolled him in temporary government aid programs and helped him find a job as a landscaper.
For many TV news viewers in the United States, the current refugee crisis seemed to begin last September, when grim news began to appear of massive numbers of migrants escaping Syria to Europe, many of them dying in waterlogged rafts or unventilated trucks.
The media frenzy erupted just in time for last fall’s High Holy Days, and rabbis took to the pulpit to encourage congregations to take note. By that time, Amatutule had already spent some 18 Yom Kippurs and Rosh Hashanahs displaced by war from his homeland, which he left because of its long-running civil war.
“Six months ago, we felt we were shouting into the wind trying to get people to understand there’s a refugee crisis,” Riva Silverman, vice president of external affairs for HIAS, a Jewish refugee aid organization, told congregants at a Shabbat lunch in January at Temple Beth Am on La Cienega Boulevard.
Silverman spoke at a crucial, if understated, moment for Jewish activism on the issue. Suddenly alert to the crisis, synagogues across the Southland are now trying to decide how, if it all, they can help.
HIAS was founded in 1881, originally as a group dedicated solely to Jewish refugees — thus its name, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. By the time the number of displaced Jews had trickled to a halt after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, HIAS’ leadership decided that rather than close up shop, it would continue by serving non-Jewish refugees.
Now, HIAS is part of the United States Refugee Admission Program, a roundtable of nine nonprofit organizations that together with the State Department form the government apparatus for refugee resettlement.
The refugee admission system varies greatly from country to country. In Canada, for example, a group of five or more people can sponsor a refugee or family of refugees to come settle in their area by taking full financial responsibility for those individuals.
The system in the United States is much more rigid. When the United Nations decides refugees should go to the United States, HIAS and the other eight nonprofits divide responsibility for the immigrants, then turn to local partners to coordinate their living arrangements.
The Refugee and Immigration Services office of JFS San Diego is one of those local partners; each month, it helps resettle about 30 refugees. (Los Angeles’ high cost of living means the government has excluded it as a destination for refugee placement, Silverman said.)
Thirty refugees may seem like a drop in the bucket when compared with the nearly 60 million refugees that today remain in international limbo. (This week, Austria came under criticism for taking only 80 refugees per day.) But for the people and organizations across North America who devote their time and resources to finding safe havens for these families, every drop counts.
“The only consolation we find is, ‘one person at a time,’ ” said Etleva Bejko, director of the JFS San Diego refugee office.
In fact, in San Diego, the diverse neighborhoods of City Heights and El Cajon have become home to robust and growing refugee communities.
For those refugees who do not have family in the region, JFS arranges airport pickup and leases them an apartment, stocking it with groceries and basic household goods. For those with families offering some help, the process starts the day after the refugees arrive, when a case manager briefs them on how resettlement works and determines their eligibility for a variety of government services.
Case manager Husam Salman, 30, likes to begin by telling clients those services are only temporary, so they are not shocked when government aid dwindles down the line.
A non-practicing Muslim from Baghdad, Salman can speak from personal experience. In 2013, he arrived as a refugee, joining a sister who had settled in San Diego with the help of JFS.
At first, he, his sister and two brothers shared a studio apartment in El Cajon, east of San Diego. He struggled to find an apartment of his own without an income stream. Soon, though, JFS helped him get a job — first at a door-to-door advertising company and later at Walmart, where he made enough income to afford to live on his own.
Six months after starting work at Walmart, his cellphone rang during a work break. It was Becky Morines, then a JFS employment specialist, calling to offer him a job as a case manager.
Salman has a law degree from Iraq, and getting an office job was a palpable step up for him. But from the beginning, he felt the U.S. was a better fit than his native country, since the legal system here works fairly and, he said, “everybody is equal here.”
“I just feel I belonged to this country because it’s so fair,” he said during a recent interview at his office. “In our country, like, no, the logic is sick. The values are different — it’s upside down.”
Salman has become something of a poster child for JFS San Diego: gainfully employed and upwardly mobile.
Despite his degree, he never practiced law in Iraq, fearing that career would make him a target for violence. But now, he hopes to find a way to obtain credentials to practice here. Morines, who has since left JFS, offered to put him in touch with her husband, a lawyer, to assist with the process.
“It was so nice [of her],” Salman said. “It’s so nice to have friends.”
Salman’s current job is part social worker, part employment agent, part therapist and part friend.
JFS San Diego is a full-service family nonprofit, providing goods and services ranging from a food pantry to a “Big Pals” program for Jewish teens.
But the program generating the most buzz these days is the Refugee and Immigration Services office, which relocated in 2015 to a satellite office in Mission Gorge, a 10-minute drive from the JFS San Diego headquarters, to be closer to the immigrant communities the organization serves.
When Saad Dawood first immigrated to San Diego from Baghdad in 2010, his JFS case manager took on the role of an informational hotline on life in America.
“I was calling him and asking if I need, like, to go somewhere, how can I get there, how to use the bus, everything, all the questions you can think of,” he said.
A college graduate in computer engineering, Dawood had no desire to leave Iraq, but then he and his sister were victims of a car bomb in Baghdad, leaving him with shrapnel wounds in his neck. Shortly after that, he was injured again in yet another improvised explosive detonation.
“After that I said, ‘That’s it.’ I mean, ‘I have to leave,’ ” he said. He left Iraq for Turkey, spending a year and nine months there before being allowed to resettle in the United States.
Even then his transition to the U.S. was not an easy one: At first, he was able to find only menial jobs.
About a year ago, he applied for a position on Craigslist for an IT support job — at JFS San Diego. In 2015, he was named the JFS San Diego employee of the year.
“There’s a reason why he was selected the employee of the year, and it goes beyond that he does great work,” CEO Michael Hopkins told the Jewish Journal during a recent visit to JFS San Diego’s newly remodeled headquarters on Balboa Avenue, about 10 miles north of downtown.
“I think in so many ways he’s an example of the work that we do, and it’s almost a reminder, when he’s fixing our computer, what we do here,” he added.
Hopkins said JFS has been flooded of late with requests for its leaders to come speak at synagogues and other local organizations about the work JFS does with refugees.
“We have had more requests than ever to be speakers, to be presenters, to better understand what’s going on,” he said. “For me, that’s the sign that there’s conversations happening outside, in our community, and people want to have the facts.”
Likewise, in Los Angeles, some synagogues are taking steps to educate themselves on the crisis.
At Temple Beth Am, HIAS’ Silverman came from Connecticut to speak at the invitation of a synagogue committee established to coordinate a response to the refugee crisis.
Taking the pulpit to address a joint service of the temple’s two main minyanim on Jan. 23, Silverman emphasized the Jewish responsibility, both historical and scriptural, to care for strangers in their midst.
“The moment we began our lives as a free people, we were commanded to have empathy for others,” she said, citing that week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, which describes the escape from slavery in Egypt: “You shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Even as attention to the crisis runs high, HIAS is now hedging against a backlash. Silverman reminded the audience that 31 governors had pledged to bar refugees from their states, and, in Congress, the House of Representatives passed a bill in November that would increase hurdles for refugees from Iraq and Syria seeking entry to the United States (the Senate rejected the House bill in January).
Silverman urged the congregants to help counterbalance that political tide.
“If there is only one thing you take away from my remarks this morning, it is to please educate yourselves more about refugee issues and be a voice of reason and compassion in your community,” she told the congregants seated in the synagogue’s main sanctuary.
So far, Beth Am has taken little definitive action in response to the refugee crisis. Members of the ad hoc refugee committee said it is still determining exactly how it can best help.
A few blocks east on Olympic Boulevard, IKAR, the nondenominational congregation that meets for services at Shalhevet High School, is in a similar exploratory process.
“We’re very much awake to this issue right now, and we’re just planning in a very thoughtful way where we can have the most impact in a sustained way,” said Jason Lipeles, IKAR’s community organizer.
IKAR has been scouting partner organizations that can translate goodwill into education and action.
As at Temple Beth Am and elsewhere, IKAR’s activism began around the High Holy Days, galvanized by stark images such as the photograph of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, whose lifeless body washed up on a Turkish shore.
“All of the sudden, we are awake,” Rabbi Sharon Brous, the congregation’s founding rabbi, sermonized on Rosh Hashanah. “The world’s shofar blast. What all those numbers, stats, warnings couldn’t do — wake us up — the picture of Aylan did in an instant.”
The Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, which is independent of JFS San Diego although part of the same loosely affiliated national network, also has a long history of working with immigrant communities. Its current focus is on the Russian and Iranian immigrant communities, according to David Gershwin, a spokesman for JFS LA.
The L.A. nonprofit’s Immigrant and Resettlement Program will work to help any immigrant in need of social services, regardless of origin and religion, Gershwin said: “If they show up at our doorstep, we will help them.” But, he said, at this time they are not involved with an expansive refugee aid program of the sort being done in San Diego.
Even more refugee resettlement is going on in Canada, where immigration law allows for a group of five or more people to sponsor a refugee family by paying for the family’s expenses for one year.
If San Diego shows what can be done — albeit on a limited basis — to help refugees, a congregation in Vancouver, Canada, shows what can be done when the forces of government, faith and philanthropy align.
Rabbi Dan Moskovitz moved to Canada in 2013 from Temple Judea in Tarzana to take the post of senior rabbi at Temple Sholom in Vancouver.
Within 48 hours of Moskovitz’s 2015 Kol Nidrei sermon exhorting his congregation to respond to the refugee crisis, the congregation raised $40,000 — enough to sponsor one refugee family, he said. Subsequent fundraising matched that amount, enabling the synagogue to sponsor an additional family, as well.
The temple has entered into a partnership with the local Anglican Diocese, which was already a “Sponsorship Agreement Holder,” a status that enables it to invite refugees to resettle in the community after the Canadian government has vetted them.
On Dec. 1, 2015, congregants met the two families via Skype during a town hall meeting. At that point, Moskovitz said, any apprehensions they might have had about inviting strangers from an active war zone into their community evaporated.
“You could hear an audible sigh of relief, and you could hear people saying in a murmur, ‘They look just like us; they could be my neighbor,’ ” he said.
After completing some paperwork — several lawyers from the congregation pitched in, including an immigration lawyer — the synagogue won approval to host the families, and expects them to arrive sometime in the next three months.
Closer to their arrival, synagogue members will be called upon to assist with tasks ranging from furnishing apartments to teaching the children to ski and play hockey. “Good Canadian stuff,” Moskovitz said.
Among about 30 of the larger Reform congregations in Canada, roughly 20 have agreed to sponsor at least one family, according to Moskovitz.
“This is a mitzvah that’s repeated 36 times in the Torah, to love the stranger because we were once strangers in the land,” Moskovitz said in an interview. “I couldn’t fulfill that mitzvah in Los Angeles, but I can do it in Canada.”
Providing a welcoming countenance and a helping hand for strangers has long been part of the organizational DNA at JFS San Diego.
The organization was founded in 1918 to assist Jewish asylum-seekers fleeing the first world war in Europe, who showed up at the Mexican border with the United States, CEO Hopkins said.
About a year ago, JFS San Diego developed a strategic plan that included boosting its involvement in refugee resettlement.
“We’re actually aware of some JFS [branches] that because they are no longer resettling Jews, decided to get out of the resettlement business,” Hopkins said. “As a result of our strategic plan, we actually deepened our commitment to doing refugee work.”
He said he recognizes concerns from some community members about security, heightened by recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, but he said those fears generally arise from a mistaken notion that “there’s some quick way to get into the United States.”
“It’s a really arduous, long, tedious process with numerous checks along the way,” he said.
Certainly, it was no easy journey for Sebazira Amatutule. But less than a year after his arrival, he now has a regular job with a landscaping company, and his children — a fourth-grader and a seventh-grader — go to a school within walking distance of their home near El Cajon.
In fact, Amatutule now helps other refugees get acclimated to San Diego; relatives at the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement have circulated his telephone number, and now he sometimes gets calls from fellow refugees asking for assistance and information.
Recently, he got a call from an acquaintance from Kyangwali who said he was being resettled by JFS in Pennsylvania.
“I replied that you have a good chance,” he said. “Other people are crying, but you have a good chance. If they assisted you the way they assisted me, your life is going to be better.”