More than two million people have fled their homes in Ukraine and passed into Poland, as a result of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, said Tanya Arbit, Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Women’s Philanthropy President, in a webinar last month.
“To put this into context this number is larger than the population of two Milwaukees and this is just the refugees who have immigrated to Poland,” said Arbit, who recently visited the region on a Milwaukee Jewish Federation mission trip. “It was heart-wrenching to see and hear the devastating stories of loss.”
Milwaukee Jewish Federation held the webinar Aug. 10, “How to Support Ukrainian Newcomers,” where experts talked about the Jewish response to displaced Ukrainians and the available volunteer opportunities. The webinar provided information on ways community members can assist newcomers, including forming Welcome Circles or becoming formal sponsors. Many incoming Ukrainians have immigrated to larger American cities, but it is still possible for volunteers to help locally in Milwaukee
The local Jewish Family Services, Jewish Federations of North America, HIAS and Milwaukee Jewish Federation were all participants in the webinar.
Arbit talked about how she immigrated to the United States from Ukraine more than three decades ago, with Jewish community assistance. Now, there is the opportunity to help others.
The Jewish Federations of North America has advocated for aid to Ukrainians in Congress and is supporting Ukrainian-based nonprofits, said Darcy Hirsh managing director of public affairs of JFNA.
United for Ukraine program
Basha Silverman, senior advisor for Ukraine and Refugee resettlement at JFNA, talked about the United for Ukraine program. “This is something that anyone who meets the criteria can participate in,” she said. “This is an opportunity for an individual in the U.S to apply to be a sponsor and bring an individual or family from Ukraine to your home or to a home that you identify as safe.”
You can gather the services that they need on your own or with others in your community, she said. Participants are able to access work authorization, though there is a bit of a backlog, she said. They can access some but not all federal benefits. Some, however, did not come to America through the United for Ukraine program and do not have access to its benefits.
To sponsor a Ukrainian family through the United for Ukraine program, you would need to show you can provide financial support to them for up to two years.
Isabel Burton, senior director of community engagement for HIAS, the immigration assistance nonprofit with historic Jewish roots, talked about Welcome Circles and how they can connect with the United for Ukraine program. She noted there are two community-based Welcome Circles now operating in Milwaukee, affiliated with Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun and Shir Hadash.
A Welcome Circle is a core group of 5-8 people, with background checks, a time commitment, and submission of a plan. They are local people who work with and support a newcomer family.
“We feel strongly that there are there are opportunities for every personality type to engage in the work and it really brings the community together,” Burton said.
“The United for Ukraine program is a decentralized model,” she said. HIAS adds safeguarding for immigrants by monitoring, “because we know our circles are above board,” she said. Welcome Circle assistance includes office hours with HIAS experts.
HIAS has an algorithm that can match Americans with Ukrainians in need. Called MADI (Madeline Albright Matching Algorithm for Displaced Individuals), it matches Ukrainians in Europe with potential Welcome Circle sponsors in the United States. Burton said it is somewhat like “a dating profile” for a potential match.
Kevin Boland, director of social services at Jewish Family Services in Milwaukee, expressed appreciation for community support and described some of the services offered by JFS. The nonprofit offers affordable housing and mental health services, among others.
Several JFS services have been put to work for Ukrainian newcomers, including J-Help, which offers emergency financial assistance, and case management, which for example can help with enrollment in school.
“Jewish Family Services is not a resettlement agency. We work with resettlement agencies,” he said, acknowledging that JFS did that work in the past. “We’re there to help out.”
So far, fewer than a dozen Ukrainian families have needed local JFS support, but the nonprofit is available to assist more as needed.