MADISON — Last fall, about a year before the election of Donald Trump, Jewish Social Services of Madison, a small but active nonprofit known for assisting people of all backgrounds, began asking itself how it could assist with the refugee crisis.
“I started work on Sept. 15, 2015, and I got an email that said something along the lines of: There is this refugee crisis, what are you going to do?” JSS Executive Director Dawn Berney recalls.
More emails followed, so Berney reached out to her board of directors to see if they would support the nonprofit doing resettlement work.
She wasn’t sure what to expect. The last time the agency had done refugee resettlement was in the 1990s during the fall of the Soviet Union, and getting back into that work would mean additional fundraising.
Despite the extra expense, the board voted unanimously to back the effort, and JSS began working with refugee relocation charity HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society).
A year later JSS welcomed three Syrian families, all of them Muslim, to their new life in Madison: A family of five, comprised of parents, children and a grandmother; a family of three; and a family of four, all of them with children under the age of 10.
“For Jews, it really goes back to the idea of: welcome the stranger. That’s in the Torah over and over again,” Berney said. “For so many of us who came to the states because they were escaping pogroms, or the Nazis, it is just as important to prevent the genocide of people who are Jewish as people who aren’t.”
‘Welcome the stranger’
The first family arrived at the end of December. The second family on Jan. 17, and third family arrived on the day of Trump’s inauguration, Jan. 20.
The irony of that last arrival wasn’t lost on the organizations, Berney said, and staff and volunteers – including a new case worker that speaks Arabic – made sure that despite the headlines the families felt as welcome as possible in their new homes.
With funding help from the federal government through HIAS – $1,000 per person – the families were placed in fully furnished apartments. As part of the resettlement guidelines, JSS stocked the families’ kitchens for a week and had a culturally appropriate meal ready for them when they arrived. They also helped them fill out paperwork for healthcare, enroll their children in school, apply for work, figure out the Madison bus system and provide them with weather-appropriate clothes.
The three school age children are currently enrolled at public schools and four of the adults are working.
“They are all doing manual labor,” Berney said. “One of them was a butcher back in Syria. Two of the parents are in their early 20s. If you think about it, the parents became adults in resettlement camps, because the crisis has been going on for long time.”
Although it has been hard for the refugees hearing media reports, and knowing that their families back home are not safe, they and JSS have been bolstered by the outpouring of community support they have received, Berney said, including from the Madison Police Department and Dane County Sheriff’s Office.
“There has been so much community support, from the Muslim community, from the Arabic community. That is the one positive about all of this. We are working with groups that we haven’t worked with before,” she said. “We have always had a very broad client base and we now have a much more diverse volunteer base.”
For Sherie Sondel, a JSS volunteer and team leader for storage and donation, it is has been especially heartening see all the people looking to lend a hand – from people donating furniture and clothes to area Girl Scouts collecting bed sheets for the families.
“Honestly, with everything going in the world, it has just been really nice to work with other people to do something tangible,” Sondel said.
When JSS signed on to take in refugees, it was expecting to settle at least 50 people. It is still hoping to do that, Berney said, despite the unsure outcome in the legal battle over Trump’s executive order banning residents from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Syria.
The ban was on hold as of Chronicle press time, but that could change should the U.S. Supreme Court decide to take up the issue.
“We do have three more families in the pipeline that we are hoping to resettle, but we don’t know if they have been matched with us yet. Two families are from Syria, one is from Eritrea,” Berney said.
“They are all in refugee camps. We keep checking every day to see if they have been booked on flights.”