September 21, 2016

Helping Refugees Is a Way of Life For Local Citizens and Educators

If you listened to National Public Radio in recent weeks, you may have heard a series by journalist Deborah Amos about a family of Syrian refugees in Princeton. The compelling broadcasts focused on efforts by volunteers from Nassau Presbyterian Church to help settle the family of six, who arrived here last May.

Finding the family a place to live, teaching them English, securing work for the father, who is blind as a result of a mortar attack in Damascus — these are only some of the challenges taken on by the church volunteers. For them and other good samaritans in town, helping refugees in need is a kind of moral and spiritual obligation. They do it quietly, without publicity or a call for recognition.

At the Jewish Center of Princeton, families from Burma and Nicaragua have been the focus of volunteer efforts for 25 years. Currently, members of the congregation are working to aid a woman from Cameroon who is stranded in this country. At Princeton High School, ten undocumented, unaccompanied minors, some of whom have not been in school since the third grade, are learning English and catching up on life skills via the school’s Welcome Center.

Princeton is in the midst of its first-ever “Welcoming Week,” a national event celebrating immigrant contributions to communities throughout the country. The efforts of people like Tom Charles, Sue Jennings, and Beverly Leach from Nassau Presbyterian; Louise Sandburg from the Jewish Center; and Andrea Dinan of Princeton High School have helped ease the transition for refugees from different parts of the world who choose to settle in Princeton.

These and other volunteers have worked closely, in some cases, with the town’s Human Services office. “It was empowering to experience the positive impact local government can make and see our office expand in this capacity,” said the department’s director Elisa Neira. “Welcoming these families and assisting the students has set an example of the many ways we can be helpful to our community …. Not many towns have a local human services office and it is important to have these type of supports available locally, and to also engage with residents and community-based organizations.”

Helping refugees has become a tradition at Nassau Presbyterian Church, where 10 families from Cuba, Vietnam, Hungary, Bosnia, Burma, and elsewhere have been assisted over the past five decades. “It’s a very comprehensive process,” said Mr. Charles, who works in the finance world but spends a significant amount of time on resettlement activities. “Finding the family a place to live when they first come is usually for three to six months. But Princeton Theological Seminary has agreed to let them [the Syrian family] rent a home for a year, much longer than we usually need before we find them permanent housing. This is complicated because the man is blind.”

Nassau Presbyterian learned of the family through Church World Service, which is one of nine referral agencies in the U.S. for resettlement of refugees. The family was referred to the CWS office in Jersey City, which turned to the Princeton church. “The Jersey City staff reached out to us and described this family, and simply said this would be much more of a challenge for a sponsor than the typical refugee family,” Mr. Charles said. “They couldn’t do it themselves. Nobody in New Jersey could do it. We knew what a challenge it would be, and that we couldn’t say no.”

Neither the husband nor the wife speak English, so Mr. Charles’s fellow congregant Beverly Leach has been teaching them English daily at their home. The wife is also working to get a drivers’ license. The four children are in school, and received scholarships to participate in the Princeton Recreation Department’s camp this past summer.

“There has been amazing support, from Elisa Neira in Human Services and people in the recreation department,” Mr. Charles said “I think for everybody involved, whether a member of our congregation or any other, there is a sense of spirituality that leads people to want to help others, especially in the context of our current political climate. As a Christian, this is the kind of opportunity that becomes a really important part of your life.”

Louise Sandburg divides her volunteer activities helping refugees between the Jewish Center’s Interfaith Resettlement Community and the Latin American Task Force, where she is program director and runs programs such as Ask-a-Lawyer and citizenship classes. The Jewish Center has included the resettlement of refugees as part of its operations since 1991. “Last year we found an agency to allow refugees to come to Princeton, and we resettled a family from Pakistan,” Ms. Sandburg said. “They were part of an ethnic minority called the Ahmadi, and were considered to be heretics. They have since moved to Des Moines, where they have friends.”

The synagogue collaborates with other religious organizations such as the Reformed Church of Highland Park on resettling refugees. For Ms. Sandburg, helping the families is a way to bring her own family’s experiences full-circle. “My grandparents were immigrants. Jews have always had to run from horrible situations,” she said. “My grandmother was always talking about running from the Cossacks. And we, today, are so fortunate. We have to help.”

The 10 undocumented students currently being instructed in Princeton High School’s Welcome Center are all unaccompanied minors, primarily from rural areas of Guatemala. “These are kids who have decided to make their way here, alone, because it’s so bad where they are,” said Andrea Dinan, director of Service Learning and Experiential Education. “They’ve been in refugee centers, and they are primarily boys. By the time they show up here, they’ve already had quite a bit of emotional distress.”

Some have not been in school for years and have never seen a computer. One student Ms. Dinan worked with didn’t know how to hold a pencil. “They’re not used to sitting, and reading. They’re not even literate in their own language. They’re just acclimating to the experience of being in school,” she said.

The Welcome Center spends half a day teaching the students English language skills, and the rest on the core classes needed for graduation. Through a PHS program called Fund 101, those who graduate can go to Mercer County Community College.

To further understand the situations she encounters, Ms. Dinan has been traveling to Guatemala every year to stay with a host family and work in the local schools. The undocumented students who are on their own come from a different mindset than other Princeton students. “I feel like they’re not really sure what the point of going to school is,” Ms. Dinan said. “The majority of them are sending money home and they think just working 60 to 80 hours a week at a store on Nassau Street is the way to go. So we have people come and speak to them, showing them there are things to work toward.”

The program, which uses the skills of other students who are fluent in Spanish, is working, Ms. Dinan said. “All of the students from last year have returned. I have a lot of students who are second generation Guatemalan or Mexican, and they do a lot of tutoring. They tell me the [undocumented] students are doing well, especially in math. We have two that are starting at Mercer County Community College and one will be at vocational school, so there you go. They’re part of our community, and we want them to be able to participate and be a part of everything.”