by Jessica Schaffer, Director of HIAS Immigration & Citizenship
In 1949, my grandparents, like so many thousands of Jews at the time, arrived in Canada as refugees. They had survived the ghettos and concentrations camps of Poland and Germany and were grateful for the opportunity to build a new, quiet life in a welcoming community. With them was my mother, only two years old at the time. Though she didn’t know the same horrors as my grandparents, she did know the feeling of containment in the Bergen Belsen Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp, in which she was born and spent the first years of her life. For her, my grandparents wished a bright, safe future. They wanted her to grow roots in a country that accepted her and that she could call home.
Today more than 60 million people are displaced around the world because of war, conflict and persecution—a record high. According to Amnesty International, almost 20 million are refugees, individuals who have been forced to flee their country of origin and are seeking refuge across international borders. We’ve seen images of boats flooding the shores of Greece and Turkey, and have read headlines detailing the horrors of travel across the Aegean Sea. We’ve learned that refugee processing centers across the European continent are at capacity, and families are forced to re-experience hunger and homelessness as they await intake. And it’s not just Europe that is impacted by the global refugee crisis; countries all on continents are hosting displaced people, their borders stretching along with their resources.
It’s heart-wrenching to witness the plight of these millions of people. Not long ago, my family would have been represented among them. And though today the faces are different, as a Jew – one with personal, historical ties to the refugee experience – I feel a dire need to take action.
Fortunately, through my work, I am able to try to do something to address this tragedy every day. Just three weeks ago, I took on the Directorship of HIAS Immigration & Citizenship, a Jewish organization that has been helping immigrants and refugees find new life in a new country for over a century. Since its founding in 1911, HIAS Immigration & Citizenship has helped resettle over 36,000 individuals—Jews and non-Jews alike—providing culturally sensitive, comprehensive services to ease their resettlement and acculturation processes. Additionally, the agency has provided citizenship and immigration services to thousands more, helping them earn permanent status in the United States. Just last year, HIAS Chicago served upwards of 650 individuals from over 40 countries—some from as close as Mexico and the Dominican Republic, others from as far away as Pakistan and Ukraine.
Specific services offered by HIAS Immgration & Citizenship include:
- Refugee processing
- Family-based U.S. immigration, for both refugee and immigrant status
- Naturalization applications, including medical disability waivers, interpreter assistance at citizenship interviews, and advocacy with the Citizenship and Immigration Service
- Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)
- Immigrant integration and acculturation
- Restitution for Holocaust survivors
- Advocacy at the national, state and local levels for the rights of refugees and immigrants
While the statistics and the stories of today’s global refugee crisis are staggering, I am proud to know that there is a Jewish organization in my community working to support those who are looking to start a new life in a new country. While each client’s background and story is unique, every one reminds me of my own family’s history, and it is that connection that keeps me motivated and inspired to move HIAS Immigration & Citizenship’s work forward. After all, we have a responsibility to help the stranger, for we were once strangers in a new land, too.
For more information about HIAS Immigration & Citizenship, including ways to support our ongoing work with immigrants and refugees, contact Jessica Schaffer, Director, or 312 673 3232, or visit our website at hiaschicago.org.