Jewish Family Services of Greenwich Helps Refugees Make Home in Fairfield County

above: After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Tetiana* (left) and her family fled to the United States. Irina Degtyur, Intensive Case Manager of JFS Ukraine Resettlement Program (right), helped them build a home here and in the process, the pair forged a deep bond.

Photography by Venera Alexandrova

Of all the ways Tetiana* imagined her life unfolding, becoming a refugee at the age of forty-one wasn’t one of them. Born and raised in Mykolaiv, a small but strategically important city in southern Ukraine, Tetiana and her husband, Dimitro, had jobs they loved, children they adored, a wide circle of friends and family. That all changed when Russia invaded in February 2022.

“The war started very suddenly,” she says. “We left our house, our cars, our families and our parents. All that we had, we lost in just one minute.”

Under President Biden’s United for Ukraine program, the family was able to secure a sponsor who arranged their trip to Connecticut and a small apartment in New Canaan. They arrived in June 2022. The first few months were overwhelming. Even the simplest tasks—finding a doctor, setting up a bank account, registering their kids for school—seemed out of reach. “In Ukraine we had a good life, good salary. To start again from zero is very challenging,” Tetiana says.

The process became easier after a friend introduced the couple to Irina Degtyur, a Ukrainian case manager at Jewish Family Services of Greenwich (JFS), one of three nonprofit agencies in Connecticut that have contracts with the state to welcome refugees and connect them with resettlement resources. With Irina’s help the family has been able to obtain work permits, get much-needed dental treatment for their youngest son and take ownership of a donated car. “Irina is very responsive to all our questions and needs,” says Tetiana. “She has helped us overcome many hurdles.”

Gradually the family has begun to feel at home. “When we came to the USA we thought the war would stop soon, especially in the south where we lived. But now we see it won’t stop soon, because the situation is really bad. Here we feel safe. I ask my kids if the war stops, do you want to go back, and they cry no. They are happy here now.”

JFS of Greenwich came to refugee resettlement work in a roundabout way. It was originally established in 1983 by a group of board members from the Jewish Federation of Greenwich. “They recognized a need to meet the growing demand for social services in the Jewish community,” says Chief Executive Officer Rachel Kornfeld, who joined the agency in 2019. In the ’90s JFS-Greenwich worked with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) to resettle Russian Jews from the former Soviet Union. After a few years, the program dried up as the need subsided. By the time Rachel arrived, the agency was searching for a new identity. “I was tasked to revitalize the organization and give it a new footing,” she says.

Because of her background—Rachel is a licensed clinical social worker and a certified school administrator—she turned her focus to behavioral health. Just as she started to chart a new path for the organization, Covid hit.

“Everybody and, literally, their mother needed some kind of service from us,” she says. Behavioral health—specifically telehealth—exploded; the staff and clinicians doubled in size. JFS had barely caught its breath from Covid when the Taliban claimed victory in Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul in August 2021. Shortly thereafter, Rachel received a notice for all JFS affiliates to join a call with Jewish Federation of North America, HIAS, and the network for Jewish Human Service Agencies. “They said we need every one of you to help us help the people of Afghanistan.”

It was a big ask for the small agency. “We had a skeleton staff, a part-time case manager—but I thought we can’t say no,” Rachel recalls. “I knew we could help them in some way, whether five people or one hundred.”

She brought the request to the board and was met with some skepticism.

“They thought it was a little risky because we hadn’t been in resettlement, and they wondered if the population would be well-received,” she says. “Despite some initial concerns, we decided to move forward as the concept of tikun olam—welcoming the stranger—is part of our mission.”

After completing the requisite paperwork, Rachel organized a community task force meeting. The response was heartening.

“On the first call we had forty people from Greenwich, Stamford and Rye Brook,” she says. The agency partnered with several churches and civic groups, including the International Ladies Group of Greenwich. “They literally brought every nationality to the table. While they didn’t have any Afghan women members at the time, they had people from that part of the world who could bring context and compassion. We had people from India, Pakistan and Syria to help us understand the food and nuances and interaction.”

Three weeks later, JFS welcomed nine Afghans from an extended family of twenty-six. Over the next six weeks the remaining family members arrived, and the agency managed to place them near each other—first in Greenwich and then into a handicapped-accessible apartment building in Stamford. “We resettled fifty-four Afghans that first round,” she says.

Hanna Zholnerchyk, JFS client, and Lala Addeo, Director of Volunteer Services

STEPPING UP

LAST FALL, JFS GREENWICH BECAME A FULL AFFILIATE OF HIAS AND NOW SERVES REFUGEES FROM THROUGHOUT THE WORLD. Although resettlement and immigration services are just two facets of the many programs it offers, they have become the largest. In just a little more than two years it has resettled more than five hundred individuals from countries such as Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria, Congo, Haiti and Venezuela.

“Saying yes to that national call to action was likely the greatest contribution to society I will make in my lifetime,” says Rachel. “That decision has created a ripple effect of life-changing good. The funny thing is, of all the JFS affiliates across the country, Greenwich was one of only four that said yes. Since then, more affiliates have gotten involved in refugee resettlement.”

The learning curve has been steep. Besides the biggest obstacles to assimilation—the language barrier, for instance—there are smaller but no less difficult challenges. The recent arrival of a Syrian family underscores the gulf between Western and non-Western cultures.

“They had a teenage daughter who had just turned fourteen and would be entering her freshman year of high school,” says Amy Fischer, a JFS volunteer since 2022 who was the lead volunteer for the family. “She is very bright, and I knew she would be fine academically. She was nervous about going to school with boys. Her mom was concerned kids would bully her because of her hijab. We helped her learn how to respond when placed in those situations, so she was equipped with language to react appropriately. I took her to the school and showed her the classrooms and explained the cafeteria [boys and girls sit together], and now she is thriving.”

The stress of resettlement is something that Lala Addeo, director of volunteer services, understands firsthand. Born and raised in Baku, Azerbaijan, Lala was ten when her family fled their homeland in 1990 after the fall of the Soviet Union. They were one of the first Russian Jewish families that JFS resettled in Greenwich. The memory of that time is seared into her brain.

“Back then, the traditional immigration route was through Austria and Italy. We spent one month in Vienna, followed by ten days in a camp in the woods in Italy before moving to an apartment in the suburbs of Rome. After a six-month wait, we were finally granted permission to enter the U.S. through HIAS. It was a seven-month journey with a lot of uncertainly and danger. We were in survival mode,” she says.

She remembers getting off the plane in New York and meeting their lead volunteer family—a couple from Connecticut and their three children. They drove the Addeos to a fully furnished house in Cos Cob, where a network of JFS Greenwich and Temple Sholom volunteers took them under their wing.

“It was such a warm and fuzzy feeling,” she says. “They became our friends and would include us in every holiday gathering. They wanted to make sure we never felt alone.”

That feeling of safety, security and friendship is what Lala and her corp of eighty resettlement program volunteers try to create for every newcomer who arrives in their care.

Rachel Kornfeld, Chief Executive Officer

THE IMMIGRATION SPECTRUM

THE CHALLENGE IS ONGOING. NO TWO CASES ARE ALIKE. SOME CLIENTS ARE WELL-EDUCATED. SOME ARE NOT. Some speak English, others throw themselves into learning English, while still others resist, preferring to rely on Google Translate. It’s a constant balancing act.

As an example of a family that made the transition more easily than others, Lala recounts the story of a Ukrainian mother and daughter who left Kiev and landed in Florida one day before the launch of United For Ukraine, which meant they weren’t eligible for any federal assistance. The mother, Hannah Zholnerchyk, had a PhD in Economics. The daughter, Marta, dreamed of going to medical school. Lala heard about their plight through a friend.

“I believed they could be successful here. I made a phone call to a former JFS board member, Nancy Zisson, and asked if there was a way to help them relocate,” Lala recalls. “Nancy connected me with Rachel and JFS board president Pam Liflander, and within a month we had made this miracle happen.” This success is what led Lala to join the JFS team.

The story is a happy one. The daughter got to finish her senior year at GCDS—one of the agency’s community partners. (She is now on a pre-med track, majoring in Biology at a university in the Midwest, and her mother found a job in finance.) “For me this was a full circle moment. I feel like I’m paying it forward for others,” she says.

Not all clients assimilate quite so easily. For many, the leap can be daunting. Such was the case with a family of Afghans who came to the States under Operation Allies Welcome. Two of the men had worked on a U.S. Army base in the Jalalabad region near Pakistan. Though they were trained to fix giant turbines and airplane engines, they were illiterate in their own language, as were their wives and daughters.

“They were all very smart people,” says volunteer Diane Effros. “But they were not educated.” An experienced ESL tutor, the Rye resident quickly took on a lead role, helping the family navigate their new environment. “The adults barely knew how to hold a pen. They didn’t know their birthdays (a foreign concept to Afghans); they didn’t sit on couches or use tables. Just getting them to face the same direction and sit on chairs for an ESL class could take twenty minutes.”

She conceived innovative ways to help them fit in. When it was time for the two girls—ages ten and twelve—to start school, Effros took them to Old Navy and Target, where she bought them black stretch pants, sneakers, socks and turtlenecks to wear under their dresses and floral headscarves. “We tried to take away the getting-teased factor, and it worked,” she says.

Resettlement is a long and arduous process with one end goal: to help each person or family stand on their own. The first step is getting here. Some enter the country as refugees, while others come as humanitarian parolees or are granted temporary protective status. All are here legally and are eligible for public assistance benefits as well as work authorization documents, says Melanie Zamenhof, director of refugee resettlement and legal services.

“The dates that you enter and the manner in which you enter can put you on completely different paths to citizenship and what services you qualify for,” she says. “We make sure they get the maximum number of opportunities and benefits they are eligible for and connect them with a team of social workers and case managers to make that happen.”

Even for Melanie, the process can be confusing. “I constantly have to refer back and reread the INA regulations and USCIS form instructions for exact wordings and proper procedures, and I’ve been doing this for a long time. Imagine if you are coming from another country, from a different culture. And on top of that many of our clients have suffered extreme trauma.”

Frohar Ahmadi, Case Manager, Afghan Resettlement Program and Melanie Zamenhof, Esq., Director of Immigration and Legal Services

PAYING IT FORWARD

FOR VOLUNTEER AMY FISCHER, THE MOST GRATIFYING PART OF THE JOB IS GETTING HER FAMILIES TO THE POINT WHERE THEY CAN BE SELF-SUPPORTING AND INDEPENDENT. “I see so many stories about illegal immigrants that fall through the cracks and don’t have a way to make it here,” she says. “I’m a huge proponent of legal immigration. When they get the support they need, they can make a life here. I think that’s the way the American system can work.”

That has been the experience of JFS case manager Frohar Ahmadi. She and her family left Kabul in 2022 knowing that her education, her brother’s work for a U.S. agency and her father’s work for the Afghan government would make them a target for the Taliban. A sibling who lived in the United State opened a case for them.

“We tried to get out of the airport three times, always unsuccessful.” After a month, the family made it to Abu Dhabi, where they spent another ten months—five people in one room.

“We were like prisoners,” she says. “We were not allowed to get out of the camp area, didn’t see any trees, no cars for ten months. We were just hoping the best would happen in the end.”

Ultimately, the request to come to the U.S. was approved and the family settled in Harrison. Frohar was lucky. She had a university education and spoke English—but still the transition was difficult.

“It was, like, unbearable at first” she says. “I entered a world that was unfamiliar to me, a world that I hadn’t seen the whole of my life.” She remembers the day she got her first job—in the admitting office of a hospital in White Plains. “It was a good start for starting a new life in the U.S.”

Six months later, she applied for a position as a case manager at JFS. “I felt like I was in a position to help our clients get through those stressful days that I have been through.”

Similarly, JFS case manager Dino Morell overcame countless obstacles on his road to citizenship. Originally from Panama, Morell came to Miami twenty-five years ago with the dream of becoming a U.S. citizen. “Things got difficult pretty quickly,” he says. He hired an immigration “expert” who was a scam artist and stole all his money. “I had to start from zero again,” he says.

He moved to New York, where he took a series of blue-collar jobs as he scraped together enough money to pay for another immigration agency. “There were problems with my documents, and they weren’t able to figure it out. I was ready to give up,” he says.

And then fate intervened. His best friend Richard, who worked in Greenwich, told him about JFS; he encouraged Dino to call them. He met Melanie and told her his story. Turns out that his citizenship case had been flagged in New York due to a case of mistaken identity. “Melanie did her magic,” he says. “With her help and advice, I was able to obtain the document I needed. She changed my life.”

On February 3 of this year, the sixty-two-year-old took the oath of citizenship at a naturalization ceremony in the U.S. District Court in Hartford, with Melanie there to support him.

“Honestly, that was the best day of my life,” he says. Morell started working as a JFS volunteer soon after. A few months later he joined the staff full-time as an assistant for the community integration program.

“The universe works in different ways and now it’s shining on me,” he says. “I struggled tremendously. Now I try to help people so they don’t have to struggle the way I did.”

CRISIS MODE

JFS IS ACTIVELY WORKING TO HELP GET PEOPLE FROM ISRAEL TO SAFETY

The war in Gaza was less than a month old when this story went to press. Already, JFS had helped an Israeli family resettle in Greenwich, with several more in the pipeline.

“There is a visa waiver for people coming from Israel,” says Rachel. “They were on the border and in harm’s way.” JFS got the family emergency benefits and enrolled their young child in a pre-school.

With no sign of the hostilities abating, the agency is preparing for a wave of people coming from the region temporarily, with plans to go home when it’s safe to do so.

About the crisis, Rachel says, “I’ve seen Sen. Blumenthal speak at the Israel solidarity events. The one I appreciated the most is when he said, ‘We all have experienced and responded to horrific crises around the world. For me, this is different—it’s personal, very personal.’ As the leader of a Jewish organization this was powerful to hear.

JFS jumped into action to serve Afghan and Ukrainian families traumatized by war, seeking safety. They will do the same for Israeli families. Everyone who walks through our doors gets the same compassionate care. More than ever, JFS seeks to fight antisemitism with unity. We are always better together.”

*Some last names of JFS clients have been omitted at the organization’s request

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