Former Soviet Refugee Gives Back

Posted by HIAS – NY on Wed, Jan 15, 2014 at 13:48 pm

Roman C., pictured with his family’s ESL teacher, Deborah Bokobza. Deborah still works at JFS Buffalo, HIAS’ long-time affiliate that helped Roman’s family make a new start in the U.S. in 1990 and continues to assist refugees today.


Twenty-three years on, Roman C., 30, a former Jewish refugee from Moldova, still remembers his first time at an arcade in the U.S., staring longingly at the “insert a coin” slot on a video game message and knowing he couldn’t possibly afford to play. A woman came over and handed him a quarter. “I was completely baffled by the act of kindness,” he says. The memory has always stayed with him.

When Roman was only seven years old, he and his family fled religious persecution in the former Soviet Union to begin a new life in the U.S. With only $600 and two pieces of luggage per person, the family of four traveled from Kishinev, Moldova to Buffalo, New York.

From day one, Roman found many things strange. “Not having to ask for official permission for every little thing; having colored pencils at school; teachers not being allowed to hit you; having to change clothes every day; and, of course, the enormous supermarkets full of so many different kinds of food …” were all amazing to him.

Getting started in the U.S. was difficult, however. He didn’t speak a word of English his entire first year in school, and his parents struggled to find work. “Not knowing the language and having no money was really tough,” he recalls.

That’s why HIAS’ long-time partner, JFS Buffalo (Jewish Family Service of Buffalo & Erie County) stepped in. They met the family at the airport; found them an apartment; and gave them furniture, mattresses, and blankets. “They helped us get social assistance and oriented us to the new culture and customs. That’s how we got our start,” Roman says.

Today Roman runs a successful property management company in Buffalo. By sheer luck, his business partner recently handed him the phone number for a new client looking for apartments—a JFS case worker.

She explained what new refugees go through today and the services the agency provides, and “it felt like a walk down memory lane,” Roman says.

Through a network of partners like JFS Buffalo, HIAS facilitates refugees’ first steps in the U.S. Our resettlement partners greet clients upon their arrival at the airport and provide them with food, clothing, and shelter with the goal of helping them to become self-sufficient. They offer services such as employment counseling and placement, ESL (English as a Second Language) instruction, and assistance securing health care and other social support services.

“I immediately saw an opportunity to be of service,” Roman says.

Roman began helping JFS procure affordable housing for newly arriving refugees. He finds apartments and connects with landlords to talk them down on their price. “I know how little money the families have and what they need for food,” he says.

So far, he has found apartments for a Somali family of five and a Cuban mother and child.

He hopes to help many others.

“The families look a little bit different than we did but their experiences are very similar,” Roman explains. He tries hard to find each family a home in a community where their language is spoken or where there are many other refugees. “I want to get them a home where it would be the easiest for them to learn the culture and ease into their new lives,” he says.

Secure and affordable housing is essential for refugees getting started in the U.S. With this critical need met, Roman hopes the refugees he’s helped can go on to “seize every opportunity this country gives them.”

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