You can’t help 4 million refugees, but you can help one

Five years ago, I received a phone call from Avi Rose, the executive director of Jewish Family & Children Services of the East Bay. He asked if I would host a house party for its new program helping LGBT refugees resettle in the San Francisco Bay Area, in partnership with ORAM, which assists LGBT refugees and asylum-seekers worldwide.

Despite being a lawyer and a longtime supporter of gay rights causes, I was clueless about LGBT refugees. I had heard of the occasional gay political asylum client, and I knew there were activists who had been mistreated and even imprisoned in countries like Egypt and Uganda. But like so many in my crowd, my focus was on marriage rights and the needs of local LGBT advocates. At that house party in 2010, I encountered an inspiring cluster of legal and social activists working across the globe to help transgender, gay and lesbian individuals who had decided they could no longer live safely or be effective advocates in their home country and were looking for a way out.

As a result of those contacts I joined the board of ORAM, and Subhi entered my life. A Syrian refugee temporarily living in Turkey and working for Save the Children as a translator, he decided that he needed to move to safer ground. During a conference call, we had a brief conversation about what life might be like for him in San Francisco, and afterward I had an ominous feeling — a combination of excitement and dread — that something big was about to happen in my life. Then, almost on cue, ORAM’s director turned to me and asked if I would sponsor Subhi and help him relocate to California.

That request thrust me into a complex ethical and personal dilemma. Sending a few hundred dollars or volunteering a few hours each month comes pretty easy for me, given how I was raised. Inviting a stranger into my home, especially someone who has been in an unimaginably troubled situation, involves a quantum leap in my commitment. How would my partner react, how much commitment would be involved, and what if he turned out to be a nasty or crazy person?

Despite all these fears I said yes.

Over the next several months I had a series of Skype conversations with Subhi, and very quickly I sensed that this was going to be a positive experience. We opened up about our lives, the geography of San Francisco Bay Area, gay activism in our communities, and the increasingly distressing news from Syria. He kept us posted on his journey through the refugee and resettlement process, sharing his hopes and, at crucial times, his fears about his future. He chose JFCS/East Bay as his resettlement agency and I began working with its dedicated staff.

Nearly a year after our first conversation, Subhi arrived in San Francisco. He lived with us for two months, and helping him was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Some of the moments seem very small: when we discovered the local Middle Eastern food market, came home with a full bag of groceries, and he cooked us a delicious dinner of Syrian specialties. Other days had a sense of real significance, as when we took Subhi to opening night of the San Francisco LGBT film Festival. Along the way, there were the mundane tasks of resettlement, meeting with social workers and government bureaucrats, the challenges of finding affordable dental services. On some evenings I felt like a worried parent, wondering if he would remember to make his way back from San Francisco before BART shut down, and at other moments I was the favored amateur anthropologist, learning how gay life works in the Middle East.

I remember as a child when my father would spend the afternoon teaching Russian Jewish refugees how to drive or fixing blocked toilets in their tiny nearby apartments. The refugees currently arriving here come mostly from Africa and the Middle East, and as with all other refugees, their needs are financial, emotional and practical. What most sets them apart from the Russian-speaking refugees, however, is their isolation. They haven’t traveled here with their family and religious community intact; rather, in many instances that is whom they are running away from. Integrating into a new culture is a daunting task.

The help that these folks need is really quite simple. Someone to go to the grocery store and show them around the neighborhood. Someone to figure out what cell phone service makes the most sense, or edit a resume. Housing, of course, is hugely important in this overpriced rental market. Most of the recently arrived refugees receive a small government grant and are able to work upon arrival — as compared with asylum-seekers, who often have to wait up to a year for a work permit — and this helps when paying a modest rent. But many of us have an empty guest room or the former bedroom of a kid who has gone off to college, and that can be a welcome home for a refugee for a few months.

I’ve been telling my friends how sponsoring a refugee is an effective way to help one troubled person, just when it seems impossible to do anything about the situation worldwide. I felt something similar when I was first providing legal services to people with AIDS, at a time when stopping the epidemic seemed utterly hopeless. In both instances, I realized that volunteering in this way benefits two people. For me, it has been a symbolic way to pay it back, in recognition of those who helped my great-grandparents when they arrived in New York in 1883. For others, it is a chance to bond with someone who will be a friend for life. And for us all, it is a way to appreciate our own bounty, as we experience how a sliver of sharing can be such a transformative experience.

Frederick Hertz is an attorney and mediator working in the San Francisco Bay Area, and a member of the board of ORAM (www.oraminternational.org), an international organization dedicated to helping LGBT refugees and asylum-seekers.