Of Note: HIAS Cares for Refugee Children, at Home and Abroad

Posted by Gideon Aronoff on Thu, Oct 25, 2007 at 12:22 pm

As Maimonides notes, “A person must be especially heedful of his behavior toward widows and orphans because their souls are deeply depressed and their spirits low…” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Character Development, 6:10.) Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in The Book of Jewish Values, applies this fundamental principle of Jewish ethics to a variety of groups of children – those that lost but one parent, were adopted, were abandoned. In each case, Rabbi Telushkin identifies the weakness and vulnerability of the child as the basis for our commitment to address their needs.

Like the other categories of vulnerable children, HIAS has long seen care for refugee children as a special calling. Among the thousands of the lives rescued by HIAS during the Holocaust era, one particular group – that has become known as The 1000 Children – stands out. These boys and girls would have been dead had they stayed in Europe, sharing the fate of a million and a half Jewish children killed by the Nazis. Along with other Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, HIAS participated in the rescue operation, which lasted from 1934 through 1945, bringing 1240 children from 14 months to 16 years of age to the United States.

Today, HIAS’ work with refugee youth occurs on five continents. We provide scholarships for refugee students in the United States and olim in Israel. We continue to welcome refugee families from around the world into U.S. Jewish communities through the refugee resettlement program, help ensure that the families are strong through the work of our Refugee Healthy Marriages Initiative, and directly assist young refugees through our HIAS Young Leaders volunteer programs. Iranian Jewish and other refugee youth have been a special focus of the Vienna Refugee Enrichment Program. In Chad, Ecuador and Kenya HIAS provides psychological, social and material assistance to refugee kids in camps and urban settings. Finally, HIAS’ advocacy department in Washington DC is a leading voice on policy initiatives like the DREAM Act to improve the future for immigrant and refugee children.

In each of the above areas, HIAS continues to fulfill our historic commitment to vulnerable refugee and immigrant children. Below are updates on two current projects -- one focused on Jewish refugee youth from the former Soviet Union living in Maryland and the other on Darfuri refugees in Eastern Chad.


HIAS Young Leaders' First Chess Class

Update: HIAS Young Leaders' First Chess Class

With the help of board member Jack Serber, the Washington DC Chapter of HIAS Young Leaders (HYL) has been able to form a strong relationship with the Shalom Education Center of Greater Washington, a Russian Jewish Community School in Rockville, Maryland for Russian Jewish immigrant children ages 3-16.

Earlier this year, Igor Khayet, a member of HYL DC, worked with HYL staff to apply successfully for a $1,000 IBM grant to purchase chess equipment and start a chess class for the students at the Shalom Education Center. The dream of creating a chess class was listed in the Center’s annual report.

On October 14 HYL held our first chess class with 25 students, 4 young leaders, a member of the HIAS Board and HIAS DC staff in attendance. The class was so popular that the teachers of other classes that were scheduled the same time complained that they had no students. They didn’t know what had happened to everyone until they walked to the chess room and saw that everyone was there.

One parent mentioned that her two daughters did not want to attend the school again this year until they heard about the new chess class and then they both wanted to return.

Another parent thanked HIAS and said her daughter had been waiting for school to start for a month now because she was so excited for this program.

Yet another said that the class was so exciting not only because of the food we brought and the chess lessons, but because the children were excited to be able to practice their English. These students only speak Russian at home and hear Russian all the time so their English is limited.

HYL DC has committed to running this class every other Sunday for the entire school year. 

Darfuri children at play

Update: HIAS Activity in Eastern Chad with Darfuri Refugee Children

HIAS’ children’s activity in the camps in Eastern Chad includes athletics, songs and art, and offers young refugees an opportunity to discuss their traumatic experiences. The activities promote positive social behavior and encourage discussion of trauma.

The groups of children typically comprise 20-30 boys and girls per session. The activities begin with songs as a warm-up activity. Before the sun gets too high, they continue outside with athletics and games. They return to HIAS facilities for art therapy, in which they are instructed to draw pictures of what they remember of Darfur and share them with the other children. Discussion of these experiences follows. Children’s activities end with songs (often about Darfur) and traditional dancing.

The children carry traumatic, emotional experiences that need to be expressed. The fact that the children readily engage and disclose their traumatic experience is a remarkable testimony to the trust and comfort they feel with the HIAS counseling team. The HIAS sessions provide a rare and much-needed oasis of guidance and normality amidst their difficult life in the camp with the counselors serving as exceptional figures of nurturance.

Through this work, the children display a marked change in affect and behavior at the end of the play-activity. They are starved for normal, positive social play. They are also starved for the toys that are made available. HIAS provides for time, space, and elementary instruments where these children can engage in age-appropriate and rehabilitative activities. This crucial HIAS initiative provides a modicum of normalcy and a glimmer of hope to their challenging lives in the camps.

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