Leslie Aizenman will be at the local World Refugee Day celebration, Saturday, June 22, at Community College of Allegheny County on the North Side, but she may be hard to find in the crowd.
As director of refugee services for Jewish Family & Children’s Service, Aizenman is the community’s point person on refugee affairs, working hard to resettle them, find them jobs and raise awareness about their challenges.
But Saturday, she’ll be happy to “be behind the scenes” and let the performers and venders showcase their traditional, music, dance and food.
“We have personalities on stage and young people will be helping out with this,” she said.
To be sure, World Refugee Day is not just a Jewish effort. Established by the United Nations to honor and recognize the approximately 42.5 million refugees and stateless people around the world, the day will be marked globally as well.
Here in Pittsburgh, the local celebration is a collaboration between JF&CS, Northern Area Multi-Service Center (NAMS), Catholic Charities, Acculturation for Justice, Access & Peace Outreach (AJAPO) and the Southwest Pennsylvania chapter of the Red Cross.
And the newest refugees coming to Pittsburgh are not Jewish. They are primarily Bhutanese with smaller numbers of Africans, Burmese and Iraqis (Christian and Muslim).
But helping refugees, Jew and non-Jew alike, is a long-standing Jewish mission, according to Aizenman.
“This agency [JF&CS] was founded doing resettlement 75 years ago,” she said. “It has over the years done resettlement initially with Jewish people. Then there were waves of Vietnamese, Bosnian, and the big Russian population that came.
“The agency decided that this is a Jewish value to welcome the stranger, tikkun olam. This is a saving-lives effort; these people are stateless, and I always say welcoming the stranger is the most repeated commandment in the Torah.”
Being a refugee is a last resort for these people, she added, noting that few of them opted for leaving their homelands for a country where they have no roots, do not understand the language or customs and must literally rebuild their lives from scratch.
They are here because they were uprooted by upheavals in their own countries, she said.
“Many people wonder who refugees are and why they are in Pittsburgh, added Rebecca Johnson, Housing/Employment Case Manager at NAMS. “This is a great way for community members to get to know their new neighbors, and a wonderful educational opportunity to learn about the refugee experience and their cultures.”
Several community organizations will be present at World Refugee Day, including the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council and Allegheny Intermediate Unit, both of which provide English as a second language classes for refugees, as well as the Department of Human Services, Squirrel Hill Health Center and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, among others.
One particular event Saturday, called “Refugee Voices,” will feature personal stories shared by area refugees about their experience and what it means to be a refugee.
According to Aizenman, Pittsburgh has become a significant destination for refugees. She said they have been successful here. Many have risen above low-end jobs, which is difficult for newcomers, to open their own businesses. Several have bought cars and houses; some are even attending community college or college.
For others, though, the challenges of making a living remain daunting.
“They never worked in America; they don’t know our customs — our social customs in the workplace — how to get around in the office in terms of technology. … We have to teach them how to interview [for a job]; that’s not necessarily something they know.”
Aizenman said Jewish Pittsburgh is becoming increasingly familiar with JF&CS’ work with refugees. She has been invited to speak at several city and suburban synagogues about her work.
Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) is one of nine national organizations, mostly faith-based, that have State Department contracts to resettle refugees. JF&CS and other Jewish family agencies nationwide are HIAS subcontractors.
While there are still Jewish refugees, she said, they are significantly fewer than the German and Russian waves that came in years past
“There are a small number of Jewish refugees coming from Iran and the former Soviet Union,” Aizenman said, “not so much to Pittsburgh, but to New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. We haven’t had a Jewish refugee in a while, but there are still some.”
Want to go?
What: World Refugee Day
When: Saturday, June 22, noon to 4 p.m.
Where: Community College of Allegheny,
808 Ridge Ave., North Side
The event is free, family friendly and open to the public. Officially, World Refugee Day is June 20, but it is being celebrated here a few days later.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)