Mohammad Al-Juboori was just 19 years old in 2006 when he took the job — as an interpreter with the U.S. Marine Corps — that would profoundly alter the shape of his life. Despite the everyday threat of mortar fire, the English-speaker worked with American troops because he wanted to participate in the shifting fortunes of his country.
But he quickly became a target of insurgents who resented his collaboration with the U.S. With his life in danger, he fled to Jordan, leaving family members behind. He returned to Iraq in 2011, got married and had a baby daughter, and started work as an air traffic controller. But once again, his work history with the Marines caught up with him.
“I was threatened many times,” he said. “I couldn’t stay there because it was dangerous for me and for my family.”
This time he fled for good, moving from place to place and filing multiple applications for four years before he was granted access to the United States.
He arrived here in December 2014, and though he spoke English, he was otherwise at sea — luckier than some of his friends at the refugee camp, but still overwhelmed by starting a new life.
“I needed someone to guide me,” he said, “and the Welfare office referred me to JEVS.”
Al-Juboori knew little about the vaunted human services agency, but with the help of his JEVS Center for New Americans counselor, he got a job at Walmart and then a better job, later on, at Weber Manufacturing.
He also started volunteering for JEVS, helping other refugees learn English and navigate American culture. He was so good at helping people, and so passionate, that when Weber laid him off, JEVS hired him full-time as an employment counselor and job developer. Now he helps people from all over the world — Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Congo, Ukraine — who grapple with challenges he once faced himself.
“JEVS, for me, means everything,” said Al-Juboori, who lives in the Northeast with his wife and 3-year-old daughter. “It’s a great organization and it helps people a lot to change their lives.”
Changing people’s lives — that’s what JEVS has been trying to do since 1941, when it was founded as the Jewish Employment and Vocational Bureau to serve Jewish refugees who needed to find jobs in their adopted country. Demand for its services quickly grew, however, and by the 1950s the organization, now called Jewish Employment and Vocational Service but widely knowns as “JEVS,” was serving thousands of people in the Greater Philadelphia area who struggled to find work. An annual report from 1957 noted “3,222 men, women and adolescent” JEVS applicants, and boasted its “unique” profile as “the only agency combining diagnosis, counseling and placement for the handicapped at a highly personal level.”
In January 1969, Business Week featured JEVS’ work training program with “functionally illiterate ghetto residents.
“The experiment has proved so productive,” wrote Business Week, “that the Labor Dept. — which financed it — has expanded the project to nine additional cities and one rural area.”
In the 1970s and ’80s, in addition to expanding its vocational services, JEVS welcomed Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union. And the agency was so well known for supporting individuals with disabilities that government officials came to JEVS for help in creating community supports for people with behavioral health issues when state psychiatric insititutions closed.
“Today we have over 34 group homes serving individuals around the clock throughout Philadelphia and Montgomery County,” said JEVS CEO Jay Spector, who these days often finds himself at a loss when asked to briefly sum up what JEVS does.
“Because of our diversity [of services], it is so hard to get that elevator speech down,” Specter said. “People know us but they don’t really grasp the breadth of what we do and the broader range of services that have evolved over 75 wonderful years of life.”
Those services, which are provided to roughly 35,000 people per year, support people with substance abuse problems, mental illness, intellectual disabilities, physical disabilities, and, yes, refugees who come here without any English.
“We also serve a couple thousand individuals with disabilities and who are aging get the support they need to stay out of nursing homes,” Spector said. “And we have a home-care agency which also serves mostly aging individuals who are low-income so that they can stay at home and get the level of care and not be institutionalized.”
The common thread among all the services is helping people be self-sufficient and live life on their own terms.
“The beauty of JEVS is the ability to remove barriers that are standing in the way of somebody, helping somebody leave an institution and help them navigate their lives so that they can be successful in the community,” said Spector.
Despite the pleasure Spector takes in being part of this venture, he’s also aware of the challenges ahead — namely, securing funding in an uncertain fiscal atmosphere.
“I always get nervous,” said Spector regarding proposed changes to the federal budget and healthcare system, “but at the same time I’m always very confident that our organization has positioned itself to be able to get out in front of those worries.”
Spector added that JEVS will need to be proactive on an advocacy level “and make sure we talk about the potential impact of the kinds of cutbacks that the current administration is talking about — the slashing of safety net programs, which could be devastating, for sure.”
Additionally, 72 percent of JEVS’ budget comes from Medicaid.
“Medicaid is much more than what most people think,” Spector said. “Medicaid is the major driver for funding for individuals who are disabled and individuals who are aging. We receive Medicaid reimbursements for behavioral health services, for substance abuse services, for intellectual disabilities and autism services, for the aging population that we’re providing home care to …
“So is it scary? Yes. But we’re always going to be faced with challenges. So how do we turn those challenges into opportunities? If we focus too much on why something is so terrible, then it paralyzes you from being able trying to figure out what you need to do to be able to deliver the services.”
In fact, when Spector looks ahead at JEVS’ next 75 years, he sees an expansion of services rather than a diminution.
“One of the things that’s critical to me, and certainly personal, is to try to really be more impactful with the next generation so that those individuals coming out of school or who have dropped out of school can avoid living in poverty,” he said. “There are parts of the population who are left out of the advantages that many of us have. We have to make sure the young people growing up have a future — not one of desperation, but one of opportunity.”
The funds raised by next week’s 75th anniversary gala will go toward supporting initiatives around that youthful population. They’re the kind of initiatives that Mohammad Al-Juboori benefitted from as a young man on the cusp of adulthood.
“If I was still in Iraq, life would be hell and I probably would’ve been killed or kidnapped,” said Al-Juboori. “I love to help people. It’s my job to help develop them so they can become contributing members of the community. I have countless success stories.”
For more information about JEVS’ 75th anniversary gala on March 27, go here.
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0747