Almost 30 years have passed since my parents emigrated from Iran to Atlanta to escape persecution. They were among countless Jewish refugees who resettled in the area with the help of the HIAS.
Some Jewish refugees have assimilated; others have not. This is the first installment of a series exploring Jewish refugees’ HIAS-aided immigration to Atlanta in the early 1990s and their attitudes regarding HIAS assistance to non-Jewish immigrants today.
I spoke with HIAS President and CEO Mark Hetfield and Jewish Family & Career Services CEO Rick Aranson.
Between 1990 and 1999, HIAS helped settle 2,176 refugees in Atlanta through JF&CS. All but 52 were Jews from the former Soviet Union; the rest were Jewish and Baha’i refugees from Iran. The largest years were 1991, with as many as 518 refugees, and 1993, with 405.
Since the resettlement of Jewish refugees in the ’90s, HIAS has not had an opportunity to follow-up with the group. “It’s really sad,” Hetfield said, “because it was a successful population in terms of the ultimate level of success that it had, and even more so if you look at the second generation.”
The number of refugees HIAS resettled locally each year dwindled to seven in 2006 but had an uptick in 2008 with an increase in the number of Iranian arrivals after the agency decided to accept other populations, such as Iraqis, Burmese, Bhutanese and Eritreans.
At one-time HIAS was one of the largest refugee resettlement agencies, and the only Jewish one, in the United States. The agency serves as a direct link between the State Department and Homeland Security Department for the resettlement of refugees, decides which communities the refugees will go to, provides funding to those communities, and provides training and monitoring.
HIAS assists refugees with housing, food and services in their first few months in the United States before they become self-sufficient.
Yet HIAS had to overcome a number of challenges in the 1990s, Hetfield said, such as meeting Jewish refugees’ expectations. “They were highly educated,” he said, “which doesn’t make resettlement necessarily easier, and with high education comes high expectations.”
JF&CS encountered the large wave of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union at that time. The organization met with the immigrants after they arrived from temporary locations and connected them to community resources. JF&CS also used anchor families, which are groups of Jews who helped refugees acclimate to society.
In most cases, the Jewish immigrants who arrived in Atlanta had established lives and careers in their native countries, but their expertise, credentials and/or certifications did not transfer to the United States.
“You may have had someone who was certified as a nurse, doctor or lawyer in their country of origin but certainly did not have that certification here and almost had to start from Ground Zero,” Aranson said.
JF&CS closed its resettlement services around 2009, Aranson said, because it did not have the expertise to accommodate people coming from different countries and situations.
“Our agency strives to focus on services where we can be best in class and felt that there were other providers that had deeper connections to other communities people were being resettled from,” he said.
JF&CS maintains some components of the resettlement process, such as SOAR, which helps people who have been resettled for many years but may still need support.
But while many Jewish immigrants have assimilated into the broader community, others have chosen their own paths. The Bukharian community, for example, has its own synagogue in Norcross, as do Iranians in Toco Hills.
Moreover, many of them have mixed feelings about the entrance of non-Jewish immigrants fleeing from the same Muslim regimes that persecuted them decades ago. I aim to capture some of those individual stories in the weeks to come.