Young Man, Fluent in Mandarin, Wins a Prime Spot at HIAS


Hansi Wang grew up in the Philadelphia area and will graduate from Swarthmore College later this month with a bachelor's degree in political science. His parents, on the other hand, immigrated to Philadelphia from China and Vietnam, respectively, his father in search of educational opportunities and his mother as a refugee fleeing the Vietnam war.

Perhaps as a result of that, the 22-year-old has always had an interest in immigrant and refugee issues, whether it's the founding of Chinatown Youth Radio Philadelphia to tell the stories of other Chinese immigrants, or covering Iraqi daily life as a senior producer and co-anchor for War News Radio, a project based out of Swarthmore and carried on more than 30 public radio stations (both projects can be heard online).

Come August, Wang will begin a one-year fellowship as Refugee Housing Coordinator for HIAS and Council Migration Service of Philadelphia, the local wing of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Wang joins the agency at a time when HIAS, a traditionally Jewish organization, serves increasingly fewer Jews, which has led some to question whether it is still a Jewish institution.

Founded more than 125 years ago, HIAS locally has a budget of just under $1.2 million for its current fiscal year (ending in August), more than $660,000 of which (a bit less than 60 percent) comes from grants. More than $129,000 (11 percent) comes from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, and the group gets funds from the national body.

According to Sarah Peterson, director of development and refugee program manager, HIAS currently serves immigrants and refugees of 100 different nationalities with a staff of 16, conversant in 11 languages. Many of its immigrant clients come from Latin America, while the group also serves political refugees (lately primarily Burmese), and works to reunite families from Africa and Asia.

Peterson was quick to point out, however, that the group still definitely serves Jewish clients, including recent work with a family of Iranian Jews. She said that HIAS still continues to receive cases from the former Soviet Union, a region that fueled much of the group's work in the 1980s and '90s.

But with a comparatively low level of Jewish clients — and equal numbers of Jewish and non-Jewish employees, volunteers and interns — HIAS' identity has evolved over the years.

"Our founding and our history lie in being a Jewish organization, and I don't think there's any reason not to identify as such," replied Peterson. "Just because we're welcoming the stranger who may not be Jewish doesn't mean that our essence or our core values shouldn't be Jewish."

Peterson also pointed out that the organization was founded to assist Jews fleeing the pogroms during the 1880s, which in turn led to helping resettle Jews during the Holocaust. Coming to the aid of people fleeing persecution today, Peterson said, is the very essence of what HIAS has always been, regardless of its clients' religious affiliation.

Like other nonprofits, HIAS hasn't been immune to economic woes, explained Peterson, as private foundations and funders have felt the pinch.

But as cash has dried up, the group has joined with other nonprofits — JEVS Human Services, for example — to co-sponsor projects germane to both.

HIAS also hopes to get assistance from the federal government's economic stimulus package: Philadelphia is slated to receive $29 million to fight homelessness, and Peterson said that HIAS has been included in a proposal to help apply some of that funding to support its housing programs for refugees.

A Small Stipend and a Pad

Wang's fellowship with HIAS was facilitated through Philly Fellows, a yearlong postgraduate program that places recent college grads with local nonprofits. Fellows receive a small stipend, health insurance, transportation and housing in neighborhoods around the city.

The program, begun in 2004, is funded in part by the federal AmeriCorps VISTA program; host organizations are required to make a quarterly contribution towards their fellow's salary.

More than 250 candidates applied for 20 Philly fellowships this year. Similar ventures exist around the region, including Haverford College's Haverford House, and Philadelphia's Destination Fellowship. Fellows begin their term in August and work until the following July.

HIAS is the only Jewish nonprofit to host a Philly Fellow this upcoming year; however, a few Jewish Fellows will work with non-Jewish groups.

The fellowship, said Wang, is "a great learning opportunity for somebody with not a lot of real-world experience — but a lot of theoretical experience — on how to bring change to the world. I know I lack that experience, so I'm looking for that."

Among the skills the 22-year-old will bring to his new position is a fluency in Chinese, both Mandarin and Cantonese.

If he proves to be efficient, Peterson noted that, as funding permits — and, of course, if Wang is interested — there's always the possibility he could stay on with the organization. 


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