June 20 is World Refugee Day

In honor of World Refugee Day on June 20, ARSP volunteer Lea wrote a thoughtful reflection

I am proud to support an organization like HIAS Pennsylvania during my twelve-month ARSP service. It is a non-profit dedicated to assisting refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants in Pennsylvania. They provide a range of services, including legal representation, education, resettlement assistance and personal support. HIAS PA was founded in the 1880s by Jewish immigrants with the mission of supporting fellow immigrants and the goal of providing them with the opportunity to build a new life in the United States.

My connection to refugees and their personal stories before starting my work at HIAS PA was limited to the news stories that we all know. I knew that there were millions of people risking their lives in hopes of a better future for themselves and their families. However, my time here made me realize how little I knew about the personal tragedies that force people to leave their homes and start new lives on the other side of the world. In addition, I knew even less about the challenges that they are facing after arriving in the US. How do you start a new life in a country where you do not know anyone, do not speak the language, do not have a place to stay, or are not able to work and support your family and yourself economically? These are challenges that most of our clients have to face and I am really glad that I am able to help them somehow.

Immigration law and resettlement assistance are very complicated processes and every case is different. To be able to serve our clients in the best way possible, HIAS PA is divided into multiple teams. I am honored to have the chance to not only work with my main team, the Asylee Outreach Program (AOP), but also the Housing and Education teams. This means that I am able to be part of not only the immigration law part of HIAS PA’s work but also the practical, social work side.

My support for the AOP team mainly consists in helping with legal services. AOP clients are mostly refugees or asylees for whom we are applying for Employment Authorizations, Travel Documents, Green Cards and other documents. Sometimes we also continue to guide them through their citizenship process.

It is amazing to be able to support people through these very important processes and to see that our work directly affects their day-to-day life. There have been so many meaningful moments through the last months: Telling a client that their first official document has been issued and seeing the emotion on their face. Moreover, accompanying somebody to their Naturalization Oath Ceremony, which makes them a legal US Citizen and seeing them realize that they have finally reached the end of a decade-long, painful journey. Furthermore, seeing that a formerly “stateless” single mother who has been struggling to feed her children has received her work permit, which not only enables her to work but will also be the first document that recognizes her as an actually existing person.

All of these examples are beautiful experiences that I will never forget and that have really changed my views on our society and the world we are living in. Just today I accompanied a client and his daughter to the Social Security office to apply for his first official document after being undocumented for 9 years. Seeing the daughter tear up after realizing that she does not have to be scared of her dad being deported at any time, was very special.

There are so many things that we normally do not consider when we are talking about people immigrating to our countries. The simplest things that we use in our daily lives can be very challenging for somebody who has never been exposed to, for example, public transportation, the gas stove in the kitchen, or the plumbing system. Even though entry to the US is considered the equivalent to safety for a lot of people, a lot of our clients are still scared that they might have to go back to the countries and life that they are trying to escape from.

Another part of my service is supporting the education team. The project is called the Young Adult Mentoring Program at Furness High School in South Philly. We work with 11th and 12th graders, who are in the process of selecting colleges for their higher education. Once a week, we come together to educate them about financial aid, scholarships, applications and job opportunities.

Many of the kids we serve are the first ones in their families to go to school in America. They are often the first generation to receive higher education, which comes with challenges. A lot of them struggle with the dilemma of wanting to work to support their families, but also dreaming of a higher paying and more fulfilling job in the future. Which can be a hard decision to make.

I am also helping our housing team. This team is responsible for providing housing assistance to newly arrived refugees. That includes airport pickups, housing searches, housing set-ups, and client move-ins. I had no idea how many things have to be considered before somebody can actually move into their first US apartment. There are a lot of questions that have to be answered like:  Who is covering the rent for the first months while the clients are waiting for their documents to be processed? Who is signing the lease and how does it get transferred to the actual residents later? Is it possible to find housing close to the client’s community with access to culturally appropriate supermarkets and connections to other people who might speak the same language to make the transition easier for them?

It is remarkable when all pieces come together and the clients are finally able to move into their first apartment in the US. It is their first step towards slowly learning how to navigate their new lives on their own.


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