After my family and I escaped from Odessa in the mid-1970s, an awful feeling of statelessness settled upon me. Our family had lived there for generations, but my parents understood that Jews had limited opportunities in the Soviet Union. They resolved to leave while my sister and I were young enough to learn a new life, even if it meant leaving so much behind.
I’ll never forget both the joy and trepidation we experienced in finally getting the green light to come to America. For months after leaving, my sister and I had to sleep on a small sofa in a Roman suburb as we awaited permission to enter the United States along with so many thousands of other Soviet Jews. We arrived not speaking the language and with only the minimal possessions that we were able to take with us. But the Jewish community supported us tremendously and we felt that we were not alone.
Now, as the United States prepares to take in 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, I can’t help but reflect on the multiplicity of challenges that await them and what our society will need to do to make their transition successful.
Refugees’ entire lives have been uprooted and upended. They need help finding not just housing but community. They need schools for their children and emotional support for their families, job opportunities, transportation and language instruction. Their family relationships have typically been subjected to a great deal of strain. Many will need mental-health counseling.
The nonprofit and faith-based sector has developed a tremendous depth of expertise in providing all these services and must play a role in any resettlement strategy.
Take my organization, the Jewish Federations of North America. We’ve collectively raised more than $50 million from across the continent to aid Ukrainian refugees and will raise much more in the coming weeks and months.
These funds are being directed to four main areas: humanitarian aid to the refugees and help with resettlement in other countries; enabling Jewish refugees to emigrate to Israel if they wish to do so; preparing to help the Jews of Russia and Belarus escape if the need arises; and rebuilding Ukraine after the war ends.
Right now, my focus is on resettlement.
More than three decades ago, we in the Jewish community stood proudly with New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg when he sponsored the successful bill to allow 400,000 Soviet Jews and other refugees to reunite with families in the United States; it is the Lautenberg Amendment that the Biden administration is using to permit some of the Ukrainian refugees to come here. In recent weeks, federations have collaborated with 375 Jewish and interfaith partners across North America to lobby the government to permit refugees in.
I know from my own experience that welcoming the stranger isn’t just about the bare necessities — food, clothing, shelter, transportation and medical care. Community-based nonprofits are a key partner in ensuring that these refugees get what they need.
For example, the government has partnered with Jewish agencies and other humanitarian organizations for decades to help resettle refugees in communities — a partnership that was formalized in 1975 following the Vietnam War. More recently, we have helped to resettle hundreds of refugees from Afghanistan and continue to do so every day.
Jewish federations are animated by the core Jewish teaching that saving one life is tantamount to saving the entire world. We know our community, which consists of so many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of refugees from Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century, could not have prospered without the help of the communities that paved the way for us to become American. We stand ready to pay it forward and help to integrate the Ukrainian immigrants into our society using all the resources, tools, knowledge and experience that are at our disposal.
The emergency aid package that Congress recently approved will provide desperately needed resources, and the Senate should follow suit, but that’s just a start. I hear every day about the burdens that Ukrainian refugees face and know that more funding will be necessary to ensure that they can build productive lives here. And in the short term, many Ukrainians are seeking work authorizations so they can support themselves, but they face significant backlogs that require urgent attention and resources from the administration.
Finally, for those who wish to remain beyond the two years that the current humanitarian parole program authorizes, these Ukrainians must have a path to citizenship.
I firmly believe that these approaches will allow American nonprofits and volunteers to play our part and do what we do best in welcoming refugees and integrating them into our communities.
Elana Broitman is senior vice president of public affairs for the Jewish Federations of North America.