PART I: MEET MARINA
In 1990, St. Petersburg engineer Marina Merlin and her scientist husband were desperate to move their family to America from the Soviet Union. Rampant anti-Semitism had made their lives intolerable.
“Street-level anti-Semitism: My son was beaten in school, in first grade,” Merlin remembered. “And at work, you sometimes couldn’t get a position if you were Jewish.”
Granted refugee status by the United States, the family applied for exit visas — a request denied by the Russian government. Merlin and her family despaired. They had become refuseniks.
But an organization stepped in that would change the course of their lives and create an unexpected ripple effect that would extend far beyond Merlin and her family. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society of Pennsylvania, better known as HIAS (“HY-yis”) PA, took care of the family’s legal paperwork and, since the family had no relatives in the states, managed to secure a “community sponsor” in the form of Society Hill Synagogue.
Jewish Federation-supported HIAS PA was well-skilled in finding creative solutions to refugee crises. Founded in 1882 to help low-income and at-risk immigrants and refugees, it had provided support for Jews emerging from the pogroms of Eastern Europe, from the horrors of the Holocaust and, now, from the collapse of the Iron Curtain. In 1992, Merlin successfully came to Philadelphia with her parents and two children; 13 months later, her husband was able to follow.
Merlin’s American life began as a shock, but as she slowly adapted, she realized her experience could be of use to others.
“I could share that knowledge with other refugees and immigrants. I wanted to give back.” So she returned to work at HIAS PA.
That’s how she met Gin Sum.
PART II: MEET GIN
Sum was born in Burma (now Myanmar) in 1989, and grew up under a military regime that suppressed democracy and oppressed minorities and religious groups. When Gin was 3 years old, his father, a Christian pastor, had to flee the country for his safety.
“I didn’t see him again for 17 years,” Sum remembered. His mother did what she could to protect Sum and his four siblings from harassment by the authorities, but finally, in 2006, she told her children it was time to run. The family crossed the border into nearby India and made it to a New Delhi refugee camp, where they would remain for the next three years.
In faraway Philadelphia, wheels were set in motion. With fewer numbers of Jewish refugees needing help these days, HIAS PA’s clientele had expanded and they had already helped Sum’s father get asylum in the U.S.
Now working to reunite the family, they were under severe time constraints because Sum’s father had developed terminal brain cancer. HIAS PA helped to expedite the family’s arrival; they landed at Philadelphia airport in December 2009, when Sum was 20 years old. “With God’s grace we were able to spend a little over a year with him,” said Sum of his father.
PART III: LIFE IN PHILADELPHIA
Life in Philadelphia was an adjustment for Sum. In Burma he had been a student, but now he worked as a busboy. Getting around in an unfamiliar setting and in an unfamiliar language was frightening.
He was grateful for the resettlement support from HIAS PA, who picked the family up at the airport, found them a house and connected them with the Burmese community; caseworkers also helped them take care of necessities like applying for Social Security cards and scheduling medical appointments. Sum listened carefully to his caseworker as she instructed him on finer points of transportation, hygiene, money management. That caseworker was Merlin.
“Gin is like a son to me,” Merlin kvelled. “I’m very proud of Gin. He has grown, not because of me, but because of him — he always had that in him.”
“I come from this culture of giving back: Once someone does something for you, you give back,” Gin said. “So I started volunteering as a translator.”
Now, both Merlin and Sum work full time for HIAS PA: He as the employment coordinator, helping new arrivals with job placement; she, as a Department of Justice-accredited representative who advocates for HIAS PA clients in immigration proceedings.
For Sum and Merlin, the fact that others were there to respond to their needs means now they, too, are in position to respond to the needs of others.
“It’s like a chain of knowledge,” Sum said. “And helping them adapt until they feel they are home.”
For more about HIAS Pennsylvania, visit hiaspa.org.
Experience Israel through ‘Humans of Tel Aviv’
“When was the last time you were walking down the street and you spoke to a complete stranger?” Israeli photographer Erez Kaganovitz asks, recalling that for much of his life his own answer would have been, “never.”
By spotlighting the citizens of his home, he hopes to help people experience the Tel Aviv he knows and loves. Now comprised of over 1,000 portraits of everyday people, “Humans of Tel Aviv” captures the beauty of the city where Orthodox Jews rub shoulders with their more secular brothers and sisters, as well as Muslims, Christians, African refugees, drag queens and hipsters.
Since its founding, the Jewish Federation has focused on supporting Israel, through inclusive programming as well as strengthening the bridge between Greater Philadelphia and Israel. And, since 1966, Philadelphia has maintained another special connection to Tel Aviv as one of our sister cities through Citizens Diplomacy International’s Sister Cities Program.
Now, our two institutions are teaming up to present “Humans of Tel Aviv,” a chance to experience this diverse collection of photographs, on display in Sister Cities Park (18th and the Parkway) from Aug. 21 to Sept. 3.
For more information on “Humans of Tel Aviv” events, visit jewishphilly.org/humansoftelaviv.