Syrian Refugee Initiative Update – Remarks by Vivian Blanc

The following remarks were given by JFS Board Member Vivian Blanc on September 14th during an event sponsored by Progressive Jewish Voice in conjunction with the Syrian Refugee Initiative, featuring a screening of the documentary film “Salam, Neighbor.”  Please read Vivian’s powerful remarks below:

Resilience.  (Fear).

Courage. (Struggle)

Tenacity.

…These words are among the ones that come to mind when I think about the ongoing reality of 11 local Syrian refugee families.

As I was watching the scenes in the documentary that we just viewed, I could not help but place the people that we have come to know and care about into those settings.  “Our” Syrian families were also forced to flee their homes and to leave their extended families behind.  They escaped the bombings and the war by leaving their hometowns and their culture behind. That culture that had so securely enveloped them, and gave them that sense of belonging that we take all too much for granted.  They lost their tether, their footing in their own lives and futures.  They spent on average about four years in or around refugee camps.  Their trauma remains real and will be a part of their struggle, in many, often unobservable ways, for the rest of their lives.

With their experiences as a backdrop, we the Greater Harrisburg Initiative for the Assistance of Syrian Refugees came into being.

Our effort began in January of this year when a group of Hershey Medical students contacted Oren Yagil, of the Federation, and described their own social service project.  It was set up to assist the families with fresh produce purchases at the Broad St Market.

The students, who were and continue to be amazingly devoted to these families, realized that they were overwhelmed.  They went from 5 children and 2 families , to over 50 children and 11 families. What they witnessed personally were the raw and seemingly endless needs of these families.  They recognized that the urgency was great and could only be addressed by a broader response.

And so this inter-faith, community wide, all inclusive, initiative was born.  With much appreciated administrative support from JFS we have experienced THE most remarkable response from individuals who represent ALL faith communities, or no faith community at all, from all around the Harrisburg Area. We have 9 teams, representing 11 families,  each team has a captain or two at its helm.  In all, there are over170 volunteers ….and for me that is the most powerful truth.   Who does the Initiative represent I am asked?  Simple.  We are People.    People helping people.

The captains and the teams that they represent have accomplished so much.  We have successfully been able to assist the families with a myriad of transportation needs, including critical medical visits and even surgeries.   The families have been able to sign up for the WIC program and learn how to use it. The teams have assisted them in enrolling for subsidized utility bills; we have identified and taught them how to access local food pantries and clothing distribution centers.  Importantly, we have had in home ESL tutoring in most of the homes….(clearly THE most important skill for survival in America).  They have requested and received assistance in opening bank accounts, learning how to write checks, how to budget and how to think about money.  The pre-school children have been enrolled in the Head Start program and….oh…I almost forgot(!)….we managed to get ALL the children in to the Harrisburg schools…even when the school district was  reluctant to enroll 5 – 8 year olds who could not produce proof of prior schooling.  We have helped them gain learners permits and drivers licenses.  Many have been able to use a one-time grant for refugees that allows for $1500 toward the purchase of a car. Have I mentioned help with internet access, car seat education and some important lessons on safety here in the US?

I have likely left out any number of ways that we have offered a helping hand.  We believe that we have, in fact,  impacted these families in very positive, if very “first step” kinds of ways.

We know, however, that our task is complicated.  Here is a lesson that I learned, growing up as a daughter of refugees…..it really is not about the “stuff” one receives, it is certainly not about simply being able to subsist…..in every way what it IS about is opportunity.  We recognize that what the families NEED is opportunity:  Opportunity leads to self-sufficiency. Self-sufficiency leads to success.

Our strategy is now changing.  We have provided a good base for them.  They are learning….learning to begin to adjust to our crazily (especially to them!) bureaucratic and difficult to navigate system.

What do we do to help them now?  How can we foster independence?  What can WE do to help them gain self-sufficiency and stability?

One way that we are hoping to promote that goal is by giving the women of the families the opportunity to bring in some much needed monies, without having to work outside of the home.  We are beginning to launch what we call The Syrian Supper Club.  The women in these families are AMAZING cooks….and they are eager to share their foods with others.  Although more detail will come out in the weeks to come, what we are hoping to do is have individuals host dinner parties at their homes. (Perhaps there will be larger suppers in larger venues.)  The women come in to your kitchen, cook there and then you entertain a guest list of your choosing.  The attendees pay a fee, per plate …..and the proceeds go to the cooks for that evening.  We have had two initial trial runs….incredible food….and even better….the Syrian cooks giggled and laughed the whole way through the day and one ended the day by saying:  For two years I have been sad.  For two years I do not feel happy.  Today…..today I am happy!

Also,   VERY IMPORTANTLY:  here is another way that you can help!  Jobs are scarce for the men.  They have limited English skills (although they ARE learning!) and they have a  fairly limited skill set.  BUT:  what they do have is RESILIENCE.  COURAGE.  TENACITY.   We hope that perhaps some of you here this evening may have leads for job opportunities for the men.  Even odd jobs around the yard would be a great income source for some of the teenagers in the families.

We have a table set up in the back of the room where some of the captains will be available to answer questions. Please sign up to be a host for the Syrian Supper Club, and please let us know about any job leads that you may have.  Also. If you would like to make a monetary donation we are accepting those made out to HIAS, which is a national organization in support of refugees.

In closing, I believe that I speak for each of the volunteers and for all of the volunteers:  WE ARE FORTUNATE! We have formed amazing relationships with the families.  Our care for them, and about their ongoing needs is clear.  We will be there for them…as friends.  Thank you to all of you who have volunteered, and thank you in advance to those of you who will offer opportunity this evening.

Vivian Blanc, JFS Board Member
Vivian Blanc, JFS Board Member