By Tela Zasloff
Since the fleeing of refugees from violence in their own lands has now become a political crisis for countries worldwide, organizations and individuals in our Berkshires area are proposing to do something to help. Currently, 65 million people across the world are displaced by civil war, natural disaster, and religious and ethnic persecution. Twenty-one million are seeking safety in more stable areas, including the U.S. and Europe. President Obama has set the goal of resettling 110,000 refugees in this country spanning from this December to September 2017. [Berkshire Eagle, 9/26/2016]
At a meeting in Pittsfield on September 26, over 400 people gathered at the Berkshire Atheneum to hear about a federally-sponsored program to find housing and jobs for resettling 50 mostly Syrian and Iraqi refugees in our area, about 12 families total. This effort is sponsored locally by the Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Western MA working with local government officials, the Berkshire Immigrant Center and the Pittsfield Area Council of Congregations (PACC). The moderator, Rabbi Joshua Breindel, president of PACC, emphasized that this meeting was strictly informational, although the audience was invited to write their questions and concerns on index cards and turn them in to the presenters.
As was expected, the biggest concern among a small but vocal part of the audience, was security—were these refugees going to be properly checked and monitored to make sure their intentions are peaceful? Some asked, shouldn’t the police be involved from the beginning of this process? A few protested that dissenting opinions should be allowed a voice at this meeting, rather than just being notes written on cards. But dozens of audience members were positive and eager to help, applauding and handing in forms to serve as volunteers helping with the resettlement activities.
The security concerns were addressed by JFS Program Director Deirdre Griffin who described the resettlement process, sponsored by the federal government, as being strictly structured and thorough. Maxine Stein, JFS President, made the point that Pittsfield is an ideal community for resettlement because it can offer healthcare, education, and social services, and local businesses have already been approached and positive about hiring refugees. [Berkshire Eagle, 9/26/2016]. Presenters also made the point that roughly 1500 job openings are available in Berkshire County, as is a lot of inexpensive housing.
Phil Smith, retired Director of Admissions at Williams College, and long-time community activist through The Congregational Church in Williamstown and The Berkshire Immigrant Center, felt good about this meeting. “This is a great opportunity for us to help these people, and, so far, the groups organizing this effort are doing it expertly.” He mentioned that at least 10 clergy were at the meeting, which is crucial for gaining community support. The Congregational Church has been active with refugees in the past, donating tons of clothing and goods to The Berkshire Immigrant Center. “The high purpose, including a religious one, of helping refugees, was the predominant tone,” he felt. The restive and protesting members of the audience were outnumbered by those reacting positively, and Phil hopes that continues to be the case.
On a personal note, I’d like to add that not only do the local churches and the JFS organization have a long history of helping refugees but so does an even older Jewish organization, HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), which is the agency that identified Pittsfield as a workable resettlement area for Middle Eastern refugees. HIAS is the oldest international migration and refugee resettlement agency in the U.S., founded in 1881 to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. It was HIAS that resettled all four of my grandparents emigrating to America from Eastern Europe, between 1890 and 1911.