Sandra Akacem’s family has become a lot larger in the last six months, although she can’t say she has any new relatives.
But since volunteering through the Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Pittsburgh in helping to resettle Syrian refugees, Akacem has become a mother and grandmother of sorts to the parents and children of two families who are new to Pittsburgh, are not yet fluent in English and who are beginning new lives after fleeing unimaginable violence and hardship.
“I’ve become a surrogate mom,” said Akacem, who is a member of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh as well as the Unitarian Universalist Church.
Akacem, who speaks Arabic, has been a friendly resource for the new immigrants, who began arriving in Pittsburgh late last year. She helps them navigate the American education system, practices English with them and even takes the young mothers to the park with their children.
Akacem got in touch with JF&CS as soon as she heard that some Syrian refugees would be resettled in Pittsburgh, she said.
“I’ve been to Syria, and I understand the culture and the religion,” she said, adding that her husband was originally from Algeria.
JF&CS is the local agency working with HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) in settling refugees, including those from Syria, according to Leslie Aizenman, JF&CS’s director of refugee and immigrant services. There are 16 other affiliate agencies across the country, she said.
Pittsburgh currently has the largest number of Syrian refugees among the network, according to Aizenman, with 11 families and a total of 60 people.
“They began coming last fall, but this is just the beginning,” she said, adding that the United States has agreed to absorb 10,000 Syrian refugees by Sept. 30, 2016, and only 2,200 have arrived so far.
She expects another five Syrian families to be arriving in Pittsburgh in the next few months.
JF&CS has been working for years resettling refugees and has helped many families fleeing from a variety of repressive countries, including Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan.
“This is what we do all the time,” Aizenman said. “It’s just gotten very visible.”
Aizenman explained the hardships from which the Syrians are fleeing.
“Half the population is displaced in Syria,” she said. “That’s 4½ million people either fleeing the country or internally displaced. The magnitude and the visibility are horrendous.”
Only 1 percent of displaced persons actually become resettled to a new country, she said, adding that resettlement is therefore not the ultimate solution to the problem.
JF&CS has received “a lot of positive attention” for its resettlement efforts, said Aizenman, which include medical services, language instruction, educational services as well as job placement.
“We have gotten positive governmental attention, and volunteer groups and individuals want to know how they can help.”
The social action committee of Rodef Shalom Congregation also has reached out to JF&CS offering to help.
“When our committee met back in November, the horrific Paris attacks had just occurred,” Marian Allen, chair of Rodef Shalom’s social action committee, said in an email. “Those bombings were followed by pushback against admission of Syrian refugees. Our committee found that pushback to be inconsistent with our own Jewish values — to welcome the stranger — and the values expressed by the U.N. to give state to the stateless, those who flee violence and persecution.”
Rodef Shalom’s involvement so far with the Syrian refugees has been limited, though, Allen said in an interview. But since last November, the group has worked on helping other refugees obtain green cards and is looking forward to assisting the Syrians when the opportunity arises.
Other congregations in the area have reached out to help the refugees — often through the collection of goods — including Beth Shalom, Temple Emanuel of South Hills, Dor Hadash and Temple David. Repair the World and the Samuel M. Goldstone Teen Philanthropy have collected items as well.
The Syrian families who have been resettled in Pittsburgh live mostly in Brentwood, Carrick and the West End. Things are progressing nicely, Aizenman said.
“Everybody who needed to have a job has a job,” she said, “and they are all settled in apartments.”
Aizenman encourages members of the Jewish community to volunteer their time and resources to ease the transition of the refugees who are now calling Pittsburgh “home.”
In addition to donations of goods and money, JF&CS needs volunteers to visit the refugees in their homes, and to help teach them skills regarding financial literacy and employment.
“We want to build capacity in the Jewish community,” she said.
Akacem, who visits her assigned families about five times a week, has found her volunteer experience to be rewarding and meaningful.
“Watching their daily progress, watching the children flourish, it’s absolutely joyful to me,” she said.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.