Darfur refugees settle into a life of work, study
JVS is helping connect Jewish community and genocide survivors
Sixteen refugees from war-ravaged Darfur are rebuilding their lives in the Newark area, thanks to a federal grant and the assistance of the Jewish Vocational Service of MetroWest.
The Darfuris are permanent refugees who are supported by renewable $86,000 one-year State Department grants administered through the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
The 10 young men and a family of six have been living in a Newark apartment complex and coping with a host of challenges that range from learning English and computer skills to finding jobs and even crossing a street safely. The first two arrived in New Jersey last August.
“Basically the Darfuris are doing a combination of studying and work,” said Joyce Reilly, coordinator of the JVS Darfur Resettlement Project.
As they focus on acquiring basic educational skills — starting with the difficulty of learning English as a second language — several members of the cohort are working toward general equivalency diplomas.
Others are doing factory, restaurant, and supermarket work. One is about to begin an apprenticeship with a local carpenter.
All of them hope to pursue higher educations.
Seven of the former Darfuris joined Reilly and Nancy Fisher, JVS assistant executive director in charge of education and training, to meet with a reporter at JVS headquarters in East Orange.
“These guys are really smart and they have a wonderful work ethic,” said Fisher. “They are very highly motivated and extremely responsible. Wherever they go they do a good job.”
The Darfuris live in a rent-subsidized Newark housing complex, where the JVS is “trying to create a community for them,” said Fisher. “They can go in and out of one another’s apartments. They cook together and socialize together. It is a very supportive community. I’m not sure that everybody who is resettled from other places gets that, but it makes total sense. It makes things much easier.”
“In Africa people take care of each other and are more aware of each other,” Reilly said. She explained that to the newcomers, “people here can feel very cold. So we make efforts to do things together.”
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has been accused of orchestrating genocide and war crimes against hundreds of thousands in Darfur, a largely rural region in western Sudan.
“We had no idea about America before we came here,” said one young Darfuri. “We did not know about it.”
“New York is very crowded,” said another young man.
“Not like your village?” Fisher asked.
“No,” he said laughing.
JVS is also helping connect the refugees with the Jewish community and beyond.
The two earliest arrivals, Philip Abiballa and Musa Aluga, have already delivered speeches about their experiences at the New School in New York, Kean University in Union, the Pingry School in Short Hills, and several synagogues in the MetroWest area.
Members of the JVS board and others in the community have taken them on trips to museums, zoos, and baseball games in New York.
“People have been very nice, and these men have gotten a great deal of care,” Reilly said.
“We have also been getting more synagogues involved in providing volunteers to work with them,” said Fisher.
JVS is also seeking to create ties between New Jersey families and the newcomers as well as several additional families expected to arrive from Africa in the near future.
“We are hoping for people to ‘adopt’ a family,” said Reilly, by providing help in setting up an apartment and establishing a personal connection.
“We are also looking to raise funds,” Fisher added. “Each new family member is provided with [a one-time payment of] $1,125. For $1,125 you can’t rent an apartment that requires the first month’s and last month’s security. It’s impossible.”
The JVS is also asking potential employers to consider hiring the Darfuris.
“These guys don’t have any resumes or any previous work experience, so it is very difficult to find jobs for them,” said Alla Kotler, case manager of the Darfur Resettlement Project. Without resumes or letters of recommendation, she is asking potential employers to rely on her and her colleagues’ assessment: “We know these guys are excellent,” she said.
“When new people come, we want to have someplace to put them,” Fisher added. “What we are doing is bringing people away from what was a genocide. We want your readers to know that the people here are very bright, energetic, enterprising young men who will do very well in the United States.”