Like many non-profit organizations, HIAS counts on volunteers to help us serve our clients, and to help foster important interpersonal connections between refugees and asylum seekers and “ordinary Americans.” These informal networks of safety, security, and support help ensure that forcibly displaced persons can rebuild lives rooted in dignity and respect.
In New York and Silver Spring, HIAS has built volunteer programs inspired by this organizational value. Over the course of two years, we have engaged over 1,250 volunteers who have given their time, their skills, and their hard work to support asylum seekers in their own communities.
Last month, dozens of volunteers and clients gathered at HIAS headquarters for a volunteer appreciation reception. Translators, mentors, English tutors, pro bono attorneys, and other volunteers mingled and heard about the different kinds of contributions people make. HIAS staff distributed raffle tickets for donated gifts in appreciation of their work: Trader Joe’s gift baskets, massages, and a gift card to Foodhini, a local refugee-run catering company.
Several HIAS clients and volunteer mentors spoke about their experiences in the program—and their gratitude to HIAS at large.
One volunteer, Gail Ifshin, spoke of Emily*, the asylum-seeking client she has been working with for over a year. “She has taught me about strength and resourcefulness in the face of enormous obstacles. I have no doubt that she will find the path to the life she wants. At the same time, I now have an appreciation for the hurdles and challenges that an asylum seeker might face.”
Emily, a single mother who attended the event with her two-year-old daughter, spoke of Gail’s unwavering support. “Your program is the voice of the voiceless, the spokesperson for the speechless, the bridge to planning a future for refugees [and asylum seekers],” she said.
Elizabeth*, a HIAS client, paid tribute to Lois Todhunter, her English tutor.
“Thank you for investing in my mom and helping her learn English. Not many kids from my country have the opportunity to come to the U.S. and have a safe life, and I’m so grateful.”
In New York City, the HIAS volunteer community connected with each other over food from Eat Offbeat, a refugee-run catering company, and wine donated by Trader Joe’s. HIAS staff spoke about the value of volunteers’ hard work and passion, which has opened the door to providing varied services to New York clients.
Molly Gordy, the first volunteer to log 200 hours with HIAS, told the story of her work with refugees and other forcibly displaced peoples. The New York event also featured a raffle, where volunteers were able to win tickets to the Tenement Museum in Manhattan, a food tour through NY Food Tours, and cooking classes through the Brooklyn Kitchen.
These annual events provide a wonderful space to connect people driven by a common goal, and to welcome newcomers and build community together. HIAS volunteers come from many different backgrounds, with different experiences, skills, and passions, and range in age from college students to retirees. Some volunteers were immigrants themselves, and some were even resettled by HIAS, while others have never set foot outside of the United States. But HIAS volunteers strive to counter the atmosphere of xenophobia and hate that so many new arrivals experience in the United States.
* pseudonyms have been used for clients’ safety.