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HIAS Volunteers in Their Own Words: Part Three

Apr 19, 2018

Blog Post

In honor of National Volunteer Week (April 15 - April 21), HIAS is celebrating the invaluable contributions of our volunteer network. Welcoming refugees and asylum seekers to the United States would not be possible without the tireless efforts of the thousands of volunteers and volunteer coordinators across the country.

Below are brief accounts by four HIAS volunteers who serve refugees and asylum seekers in New York and Washington, DC, describing their involvement in their own words. To read more entries in this series, click here.


Susan Gallin

Together with Debby Landesman​ and Barbara Busch, Gallin helped establish Curtains Up!, a volunteer initiative that takes refugees and asylum seekers to see Broadway shows, and now runs the initiative with Landesman.

Curtains Up! grew out of our desire to find a way to say “welcome” to new arrivals in the New York area. And as we thought about it we realized what better way than by inviting newcomers to the quintessential New York experience: the Broadway theater?

This all began after we returned from volunteering at a refugee program in Greece in 2016 and were looking for a way to become involved in the refugee community here in our own city.

Being connected to the theater community, we realized that tapping into the resources available to us made sense. Additionally, offering an opportunity to attend the theater would be a diversion at a time filled with much anxiety for families.

Theater is a part of what makes their new city unique and they would be participating in it.

A friend led us to HIAS. She knew it as an organization doing important work with refugees and asylum seekers and thought they could help. We met with Hadas Yanay, the volunteer coordinator, and with her guidance and nurturing Curtains Up! was created.

Our first outing was to Stomp, a show that makes music with found objects—no English necessary! We met with the cast after the show and one of the young boys who attended was given the drumsticks to bang away, his grin was a mile wide.

Recently a group went to a preview of Frozen. The response, especially from the young girls who attended, was heartwarming.

Producers in the commercial and non-profit worlds embraced the idea and have been very generous about donating tickets. Aside from Stomp and Frozen groups have seen Chicago, Beautiful, The Great Comet and Shakespeare in the Park—with new shows planned for the coming year.

We are grateful to be allowed to share our love of the theater, hoping that it makes the adjustment to a new life just a little bit easier.

Alison Karfeld

HIAS volunteer based in Washington, DC, tutored in an ESL/Citizenship class in the area for nearly 10 years.

HIAS did not attract me because it was a Jewish organization. It attracted me because of my shared passion for immigrants, refugees and underrepresented populations who need a voice.

Those beliefs I always held anyway happen to align very naturally with Jewish values in ways I’d never realized. For a basically secular Jew, it’s the first time in my life I’d discovered such an outlet.

One of the HIAS-inspired activities I’m most proud of is a long-standing relationship with CARECEN, the Central American Resource Center, which is essentially a one-stop-shop for social, legal, and educational services for Latinos in Washington’s Columbia Heights neighborhood.

Our Young Leaders tutored its ESL/Citizenship class bi-weekly for nearly 10 years. Our work with CARECEN was primarily conversation exchange. It was informal but served a crucial need for students hoping to pass their exams and become more confident in English overall. We as native speakers allowed them to put names and faces to “American culture.” Students were native Spanish-speaking adults, most of whom had been in the U.S. for years.

Those students appreciated us, but we had the utmost respect for them.

By serving immigrants through a HIAS-inspired endeavor, we directly represented the Jewish community. We made it very clear to the CARECEN population that we were a Jewish community wanting to build a bridge with them. We hosted cultural exchange parties where kugel and falafel took their rightful places next to pupusas and tamales. The bond was not lost on anyone.

Anna Purisch

Brooklyn-based volunteer who helped create a direct assistance and educational arm of Congregation Beth Elohim's Refugee Task Force in 2016.

I am half Polish, half Lebanese, and no stranger to stories of displacement and war. I grew up in Poland partly under communism, surrounded by stories of WWII and the Holocaust, and the fight against communism from my mom's generation.

I moved to New York City four and a half years ago with my husband. My first child was born right when the revolution in Syria turned into war, in the fall of 2011. And most days I look at my six-year-old daughter and think of all the hopes and dreams she holds for me, and the hopes the revolution held, and how children born in Syria just got dealt a terrible card, all through an "accident of birth."

As a parent, I also experienced a shift in priorities, and gained a new understanding of what it means to have your own family you would do anything to protect. As we all watched thousands of refugees fleeing to Europe, I could not stay away. I wasn't able to join efforts on the ground at the time, but I started volunteering online. And then I was lucky enough to stumble into Congregation Beth Elohim's (CBE) Refugee Task Force two years ago, and was introduced to HIAS at an outreach event for the Task Force one and a half years ago. Now, I help coordinate the collection of donations to furnish apartments for HIAS clients who are resettled to NYC.

To me, volunteering means turning helplessness into strength, working towards redressing the inequalities that are the fabric of our societies today. It gives me the will to move on with my life as it is, with all its privileges. It feeds the soul, as fellow volunteer friends say, and it's a tangible way to make a difference. It also gives back in incredible ways - I feel I have learned tremendously in the past two years.

Volunteering has also been a saving grace for me - it helps me make sense of the world, occasionally getting me through days that can be crushing sometimes in this political climate. Staying focused on being able to make however small a difference really helps.

Getting something done from start to finish, the puzzle of figuring out how to make something happen, looking for groups of like minded people to whom I can then reach out. Finding ways to improve our current system, and getting others excited to cooperate.

It's also extremely rewarding to watch a wishlist get fulfilled - sometimes in as little as a few days, a whole apartment can get assembled! The day of delivery can be great fun too: often we have other volunteers join to help load a truck or cars, sometimes volunteers also help put furniture together in the apartment itself, and I've seen clients and volunteers work side by side, joking about how impossible IKEA assembly instructions are. And of course getting to interact with people from different backgrounds and countries.

I am very lucky to be part of a wonderful groups of volunteers at CBE Refugee Task Force. The group is slowly gaining a reputation through the neighborhood, and every wishlist we help assemble now gets fulfilled faster and faster - people trust us and respond with great enthusiasm to this work. This constantly replenishes my faith in humanity.

A very specific and personal example though is getting a silent embrace from a woman who doesn't speak English, her eyes filled with tears, as we were working to bring furniture to her apartment. What we do is a very small piece of a complex puzzle, but it is such a basic and powerful one - literally helping people make a home in their new country.

This work literally gives you a window into other worlds. I am also learning about different groups, people from various faiths and backgrounds that I wouldn't come into contact with otherwise, and I am going past my own stereotypes or preconceptions of New Yorkers, of refugees, of people of different ages: it's a constant eye-opening, fascinating journey.

Nathaniel Berman

Served as an ESL/Citizenship tutor in the Washington, DC area and now participates in the letter-writing program HIAS coordinates together with CIVIC.

The event that really solidified that for me was the March 21, 2010 “March for America” that pulled many communities together in support of comprehensive immigration reform.

I had been to fundraisers and open houses for HIAS before, but seeing an opportunity to be a part of the change was what really motivated me to get more involved. From there, I began to volunteer at the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) to help permanent residents prepare to become U.S. citizens.

Through that work, I saw the very little effort it really takes for volunteers to discuss U.S. history and civics with students who gain maximum benefit from getting the chance to practice these questions and generally carry on a conversation in English for one hour every few weeks. I saw the earnest efforts being put forth by parents and low-wage workers, who carved out the time in their very busy lives to seek their American dream of becoming citizens and it was there that I truly appreciated the dignity and humanity of the immigrant experience.

Since then, I participated in several HIAS advocacy missions, where HIAS staff was able to bring together congressional staffers who openly admitted that they would never even think to speak to each other on the issues of immigrant and refugee assistance, to directly advocate for these communities.

And now, through the letter writing program HIAS coordinates with CIVIC, we write to individuals being held in detention centers, continuing the work of treating all migrants with dignity and respect simply by engaging in the first place with them.

Interested in learning more about volunteering with HIAS? Check out our volunteer page. And to read more about refugees and the communities that welcome them, follow HIAS on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.