Interview with Helen Siporin, a member of Fresno’s Jewish community and co-founder of Project Shalom/Salaam.
Q. How did you learn about the Syrian refugees?
A. Last February, my friend Susan Bluestone and I attended a community meeting at the Islamic Cultural Center, led by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), to inform Fresnans about the (then) 18 Syrian refugee families recently resettled here from Turlock and other cities. We learned that the IRC supports refugee families for only three months, but after that, families are on their own, to depend upon public assistance, volunteer support and/or their ability to find work. Consequently, the families were in need of all kinds of services and supports and, having no resettlement agencies here to pick up the slack, we—the local community—were invited to do whatever we could.
Q. What motivated you two to get involved?
A. It was an eyeopener for us both, because we were really quite unaware of the United States refugee relocation program. The plight of these families touched us, being that our grandparents were also refugees from foreign countries (Russia, Lithuania and Poland), who fled to America in the early 1900s to escape anti-Semitic persecution. We knew from our own families’ experiences that without well-to-do relatives or jobs awaiting them, and able to bring only what they could carry, our relatives began their American existence with little more than the clothes on their backs.
After enduring wars, political upheaval, murderous pogroms and other horrific events, refugees often had to suffer separation from parents and spouses. Many, like my grandparents, Susan’s and those of another friend, Andrea Farber de Zubiria, were waylaid in other countries while awaiting clearance to enter America.
Now joined by Andrea, the three of us wanted to do something to assist the Syrians with their basic needs. Andrea helped us research what other Jewish communities were doing for refugees. We found that several Jewish Family Service agencies across the country are actually certified resettlement agencies under the IRC. They readily shared information with us.
Additionally, we learned about HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), a 100-year-old resettlement agency which helped assist Jewish refugees from around the world (including Andrea’s grandfather in the 1930s). HIAS has since broadened its services to all refugees regardless of religion, race or ethnicity, and recently started a welcome program to serve as a clearinghouse of information.
Over 250 Jewish Synagogues, temples and agencies across the country have made a commitment to assist refugees in some fashion. Although we were a small community, HIAS assured us that whatever we could do, no effort would be too small.
Q. Tell us about your program: Project Shalom/Salaam.
A. We decided to form a grassroots organization—Project Shalom/Salaam—and as an offer of peace and welcome, provide donated gift cards to the Syrian families, proportionate to the number of people in each family. With gift cards from local markets and multipurpose stores, families could exercise choice in the type of food, clothing and household goods consistent with their cultural needs and preferences.
Our goal was to extend the financial support received from the IRC, thereby helping to ease the transition to complete independence. We designed program fliers, contacted friends and members of Fresno’s Jewish community, and networked with Jewish organizations to learn how other communities were providing support.
We drafted a welcome letter in English and Arabic (with help from the Imam Ali Seyed Ghazvini of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno [ICCF]) to accompany the gift cards to the (by now 29) Syrian families. FIRM (Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries), which currently provides services to the families, agreed to distribute the cards for us.
Q. Your steering committee members are Jewish and your project was centered within Fresno’s Jewish community. Was there a religious basis to your effort?
A. Actually, yes. One of the most often-cited commandments in the Torah (the Jewish bible) states “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). Our Jewish history and teachings consistently remind us that despite any comfort and success we have attained here, we can never forget our humble beginnings and those who helped us.
Tzedakah (justice/charity) for the widow, the orphan and the stranger is a very deeply ingrained Jewish tenet of “paying it forward.” As our families were fortunate to be spared from tragedy and safely assimilated as American citizens, so did we wish to extend this opportunity to our Syrian neighbors.
Q. Is the project finished or do you have further plans?
A. Our fund-raising was intended as a one-time effort, but Susan and I still volunteer our time and talent. Due to the trauma that families have endured, we thought it would be helpful to engage them in activities that are healing.
Retired teachers and avid quilters, Susan and I have begun offering sewing lessons to two young mothers. We teach them to sew placemats, table runners, coasters, quilts and other household items from fabric donated by friends. Both women are quite artistic, and hopefully, the opportunity to periodically step aside from their daily responsibilities (acclimating to American life, raising children, putting food on the table and worrying about family still in Syria) will provide emotional relief. Our activity also offers a relaxed, low-risk context in which to practice English.
Q. What can you share with others perhaps a little shy about offering to meet or assist the Syrian refugees?
A. Two incidents come to mind that beautifully illustrate how we are all sisters, brothers and cousins who happen to speak different languages, wear different clothes, live by different customs and pray a different way.
On one of our first sewing visits, we were treated to Syrian hospitality, in the form of Turkish coffee and a delicious, traditional homemade pastry filled with crushed dates. Not only was this a touching display of respect and graciousness, but the pastry itself was reminiscent of a favorite Jewish cookie called hamentashen. As I sat savoring the bitterness of the coffee mitigated by the sweetness of the dates, I felt a connection to my own ancestors, long gone, who had so little, but whose cookies and conversation were far more comforting than any material wealth.
A humorous incident also occurred when one of our “students” was deciding the arrangement of her fabric pieces. Her visiting mother (closer to my age) clearly had a different opinion on the pattern, and a lively conversation in Arabic ensued. One didn’t need a translator to imagine what Daughter was saying to Mother and whose preferences would prevail! I reached out, touching the older woman’s elbow, and said knowingly, “Ah, it’s the same with my son.” I mimicked the rolled eyes and impatient expression with which he still occasionally responds to my ideas. The older woman immediately understood, and the bond developed in that moment of laughter will always be a treasured memory.
Finally, as neither Susan nor I have babies in our immediate lives, it’s a delight to interact with the young mothers’ beautiful children. We hope that their lives in America will be secure and fruitful, that they will grow up appreciating the country that welcomed them and that our interactions may counteract some of the discrimination that, unfortunately, most new Americans experience at one time or another.
Q. Anything else you want to add?
A. On a visit, one of our new Syrian lady-friends brought Susan and me small gift bags. In each was an exquisite, hand-crocheted, lace doily. I was reminded of a similar piece that my grandmother (who died long before I was born) used as a kippah (head covering) when she lit her Shabbos (Sabbath) candles. I had always been intrigued by this delicate ritual article belonging to a grandmother I had never met, and hoped to possess it one day. But, after my mother’s passing, it was nowhere to be found. That moment sparked an idea to dedicate my Muslim friend’s artwork as my kippah. This gift will remind me of my grandmother’s humble beginnings and connect me with the dreams of all refugees who make it safely to our shores.
Susan and I hope to continue sewing with any who wish to learn. By providing a haven, and loving the stranger as our own, we honor both our Judaic teachings and our American values of freedom, liberty, justice and the pursuit of happiness for all—the sweet peace and welcome of shalom.
To learn more about Project Shalom/ Salaam and/or to provide volunteer services, contact the ICCF at 559-297-9535 or visit http://icfresno.org/.
Editor’s Note: The printed version of this article erroneously listed the author as Fred Hall. This interview was submitted by an anonymous author. We regret the error.