Local groups have rushed to aid an increasing influx of refugees fleeing from Ukraine.
After years of relatively few Jews from the former Soviet Union seeking refugee status in the United States, HIAS Pennsylvania has been inundated in recent months with requests from Jews and members of other religious minorities in Ukraine.
At the same time, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has provided extra funding for these local resettlement efforts as well as aid to refugees still in the region who have been displaced by the conflict between pro-Russian separatists and government forces.
The process of obtaining refugee status has been slow going, say HIAS officials.
For example, a family of five is expected to arrive in Philadelphia this week from Western Ukraine. The family members, who are Baptists, first applied to come to the United States in June 2012 — before the fighting even started. HIAS officials, who are helping them resettle, say that sort of lag is the norm.
The organization resettled nine Ukrainian refugees last year, but many of those requests had taken years to process. And for the last fiscal year, the organization filed requests with the U.S. government for 53 people from Ukraine — 30 of them Jewish — seeking to move to the United States.
“This is our problem — we are working very hard now, but the actual arrivals come later,” said Judi Bernstein-Baker, executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania.
HIAS, which was founded in 1881 to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe and then played a critical role in resettling tens of thousands of refugees from the former Soviet Union after the fall of communism in the early 1990s, saw a steady decline of Jewish clients in recent years. The organization has focused most of its resources on resettling non-Jewish refugees from other parts of the world, averaging about 189 a year, Bernstein-Baker said.
With this new uptick in Jewish demand from Ukraine and Russia, “we are going back to our roots in a way,” Bernstein-Baker said, though she quickly added: “We are still committed to serving the larger community and upholding the value to welcome the stranger.”
To help in those efforts to manage new requests from Ukraine and Russia, the Jewish Federation in Philadelphia provided $22,000 to HIAS in emergency assistance funding this fiscal year to help resettle Jewish refugees from Ukraine.
HIAS is seeking another $25,000 in funding for the next fiscal year.
The local Federation is also trying to raise $75,000 as part of a multimillion-dollar campaign led by Jewish Federations of North America to help Ukrainian Jews. The national campaign is aiming to send $2.3 million to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to help provide emergency relief for Ukrainian Jews, and $1.6 million to the Jewish Agency for Israel to help those who seek to make aliyah from Ukraine. JFNA raised almost $3 million to provide emergency assistance in 2014.
“We are gravely concerned over the recent reports about growing needs coming from JDC about Ukraine,” said Naomi Adler, CEO of the Philadelphia Federation, which has raised at least $25,000 so far for the recent campaign (jewishphilly.org). “As more and more Jews in Ukraine are experiencing serious hardships, we feel compelled to raise emergency funds to help them obtain food, shelter and other basic necessities.”
For those seeking refuge in the United States, there are many hurdles they have to go through to get here. HIAS officials say they have had to turn away a number of people because they do not meet the requirements for resettlement under the Lautenberg Amendment, which was introduced in 1990 to help Jews from the former Soviet Union enter the United States. In order to be eligible for refugee status and the benefits that go with it, a person must have an immediate family member living in the United States, be a member of a religious minority and prove that he or she has suffered some persecution. They must also travel to Moscow for interviews with the U.S. State Department before they are granted permission to come.
The program established by the Lautenberg Amendment was in limbo — before Congress renewed it — for four months starting in late September, meaning that people could not apply for refugee status and resettlement.
Since it was renewed, HIAS has seen a significant uptick in activity. In March, the organization got more than 60 calls and emails from people in the Philadelphia area asking HIAS to help their relatives in parts of the former Soviet Union, according to officials at the organization.
The majority of the requests from Ukraine have involved people living in the western part of the country — not the East, where most of the fighting has taken place — in part because there are fewer people in the East who meet the requirements to resettle in the United States, either because they are in mixed marriages that preclude them from being considered religious minorities or they don’t have family in the United States, according to HIAS staff.
The organization has not only seen an increase in requests about relatives from Ukraine, but also from Russia, where there is also political turmoil.
“We’ve always had some Jews and religious minorities from the former Soviet Union — even three years ago, we had eight people, 10 people, but we haven’t had this level of inquiries,” said Bernstein-Baker.
Even with a cease-fire agreement between rebels and government forces, fighting and the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine continues. And so, apparently does the need.
“It is the mutual responsibility of every individual and every community to support one another,” said Jeri Zimmerman, director of Federation’s Center for Israel and Overseas. “The responsibility of Jews to one another is part of our Jewish identity.”