Strangers in a Strange Land: Jane Ginns Talks Refugee Resettlement and the Central Welcome Project
April 10, 2023 | General News | Repairing the World
On Passover, we recall the Jewish people’s journey from oppression to liberation. For Central Synagogue member Jane Ginns – herself a refugee from the former Soviet Union, a board member of HIAS, and now a lay leader who oversees the work of the Central Welcome Project – the story resonates with power and urgency as she helps those who are undertaking a modern-day Exodus: refugees from across the globe.
Jane recently sat down with us to talk about the Central Welcome Project (CWP), share insights from her experience in refugee resettlement, and reflect on how Jewish values and communal history drive her commitment to “welcome the stranger.”
CENTRAL: For those who may not be familiar with the Central Welcome Project (CWP), can you tell us a little bit about the initiative?
JANE: The Central Welcome Project is Central Synagogue’s refugee resettlement program that we're doing in conjunction with HIAS, is the Jewish community’s refugee resettlement and refugee rights agency. In New York, HIAS partners with a local community service provider called Commonpoint Queens to resettle refugees newly arrived through the US federal resettlement program. We at the Central Welcome Project provide the financial and community support to supplement the social services offered by Commonpoint Queens, which include job training and placement in addition to a food pantry, benefit enrollment, and mental health services.
CENTRAL: What inspired you to get involved in refugee resettlement work?
JANE: My family came here as refugees from the former Soviet Union. I remember what it was like being a refugee kid in Italy, when we didn't know where we would be going. We were resettled by HIAS in New York in 1989. And then we lost contact with HIAS for a long time. But when I moved to New York in 2008, I was just looking to get involved with something. And I looked up HIAS to volunteer, since it was an organization I was familiar with. One thing led to another, and I've been a board member at HIAS since 2014.
I've also worked with Holocaust survivors, and I think especially as a Jewish person, whether you have been a refugee yourself or not, the stories of immigrants and refugees are integral to our communal identity. And the idea of finding yourself in a privileged position where you are able to help others – channeling that has always appealed to me.
CENTRAL: How does this work intersect with your Jewish identity?
JANE: I feel very deeply that this work is part of my Jewish values. To me, part of how you “do Jewish” to some extent is living out these values of welcoming the stranger and helping others. Clearly, that is also a value in lots and lots of other cultures, religious and otherwise. But for me, specifically, it has also been extremely meaningful to be on the board of an organization that resettled my family.
I've been doing this work with HIAS longer than I've been doing this at Central, and most of the people HIAS helps are not Jewish people at this point. We generally think of that as a good thing, because that means Jews are not in a position where they are refugees who need to be fleeing – though we're finding that again in Ukraine right now, sadly. But for the last 20-some years, that hasn't been the case, and that has been a great thing.
What I've definitely learned from my experience – both studying the Holocaust and working with survivors – is that usually when you find yourself down on your luck, you need other groups to help you. And that's the whole point; when a particular group finds itself in a position where they need help, they need help from groups other than themselves. You can look at all the stories of Holocaust survivors who were helped by either the people designated as The Righteous Among Nations or just, you know, countries in general. I'm very cognizant of that. I'm not the only one who’s made this analogy, but when the Syrian crisis first really hit in a major way, I remember being very much reminded of the St. Louis episode where you have people in boats who are trying to get somewhere safe and are being turned away.
CENTRAL: How did Central’s partnership with HIAS – and the creation of the Central Welcome Project – come about?
JANE: With the large number of Afghan refugees and parolees coming here in 2021, the refugee resettlement system in the US was overwhelmed. They started reaching out to community sponsors –which is not normally the way refugee resettlement was done in the US – but there was so much need that the refugee resettlement agencies, and even the Department of State, were looking for community sponsors. I thought it was a perfect opportunity for Central to get involved, because I know there's a lot of interest in immigration issues. It just seemed like there was a lot of community goodwill in this arena and we had the resources to do it, so I brought it to the clergy and the board. They thought it was a natural fit.
CENTRAL: You mentioned the war in Ukraine; the outpouring of support for Ukrainian refugees has been pretty extraordinary. Do you see a difference between the global response to Ukrainian refugees and refugees from other countries and communities?
JANE: A number of us at HIAS had this exact conversation when the outpouring of support for Ukrainians started kicking in. I won't take credit for this because my HIAS colleague Joe Goldman said this, but the world's response to the Ukrainian situation has been spot on in terms of the support and welcome that has been extended to refugees. And unfortunately, that has not always been the response of the world to refugees from other areas and other conflicts. And it should be.
When people are fleeing life-threatening situations, they should be welcomed, they should be provided aid, they should be given an opportunity to find safety and make a living and rebuild their lives. HIAS has been vocal about this, but unfortunately, we have witnessed that even those non-Ukrainians who found themselves in Ukraine and had to flee – asylum seekers and other non-Ukrainian nationals – have received different treatment in Europe than Ukrainians themselves.
CENTRAL: Is there anything about the resettlement process that has surprised you?
JANE: What has been surprising is to see just how much advocacy is required by us. We’ve found that it's not even a language barrier, since some of the places involved, like schools, have Spanish speaking staff. The challenge is not knowing how to navigate the system. There's a lot of bureaucracy, and we’ve had to learn a tremendous amount. CWP is full of English-speaking people with higher education degrees, and it was a challenge for us to figure out how to, for example, navigate enrolling a kid in high school so that they don’t get lost in the process or get turned away. And it’s honestly like that with everything. That’s the Social Security office, the high school enrollment process, medical appointments, etcetera.
CENTRAL: What has it meant to do this work through and with Central Synagogue?
JANE: Last year, when Passover was approaching, we did a reflection, just to kind of take a step back because we'd been so busy. We talked about how the Passover story is like the Jewish refugee story, and also spoke about how hard and strange the pandemic years have been. And we were thinking about the concepts of freedom and joy. What I would say is that I think for those of us at Central who have been part of the Central Welcome Project, it has been a welcome reminder of what it means to be free and to exercise freedom by being able to help others who are not enjoying those same privileges.
I honestly think that for all of us, there has been a great sense of joy in doing this work and working together as a community to do this work, in interacting with the family that we resettled from Guatemala last year and the new family we are resettling now, who are from Venezuela. It’s extremely rewarding and meaningful. It builds community connections both within our Central community and outside of the Central community, between Jews and people of other backgrounds. I can't honestly say that’s never been more important because it's always been important, but especially with the antisemitic trends that we're seeing recently, it is incredibly important. I don’t think the family from Guatemala had any contact with Jewish people prior to HIAS and CWP – or certainly not with Jewish people on any sort of scale. As much as the Jewish community sometimes wants to be insular in certain respects, it is also important to put ourselves out there.
CENTRAL: What’s next for CWP, and how can the Central community help?
JANE: We recently welcomed a new family from Venezuela. Our CWP core committee does a lot of the actual resettlement work, but we also have had a really wonderful show of support from the community. Last year, when we had a wish list to furnish two apartments for the family members, everything sold out. I’m really grateful for that. People can help our new neighbors by gifting essential household items from our current Amazon Wishlist. Before checking out, be sure to choose "Other Addresses" and select "Central Welcome Project's Gift Registry Address."
Central's just a really great spiritual home in general, and it has been such a pleasure working with the Clergy. I've been blown away by the diversity of our community, honestly, just the stories that people bring and the different walks of life that they come from. That has been so interesting to me, because I do think that the makeup of our CWP group is more diverse than I’ve traditionally experienced at other Jewish organizations, and that's been wonderful.
I’m just very grateful to Central for making this happen, and I hope we can keep doing it. I mean, there's no shortage of refugees. That’s the one thing that there’s no shortage of in this world. So, to the extent that we can make a difference, one family at a time? That's great.
Thank you, Jane, for all you do – and for helping Central Synagogue embody the sacred Jewish duty to stand with those who long to be free. As HIAS President and CEO Mark Hetfield writes in his introduction to the HIAS Haggadah, “This year, there are still many who struggle towards liberation; next year, may we all be free.”
Learn more about the Central Welcome Project and donate to the Amazon Wishlist here.
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