When Stacy Augustine met a man who had lost both legs during Syria’s civil war, she knew she could help. Using a friend’s truck and ramp, she delivered her deceased father’s scooter to the man, giving him back his dignity and independence. “He dreamed of getting to the mosque on his own,” she said. “Now, he was actually able to do that.”
Augustine began volunteering with Refugee Connection Phoenix and Let’s Read Neighbor in spring 2017. Together these informal, volunteer, ad hoc groups have approximately 1,200 members on Facebook. One of RCP’s functions is to match things with people who need them. Someone might say, “I have a dining set,” and a member will respond, “I have a family of seven who needs it.” Most matches are more prosaic than Augustine’s example.
The number of refugees resettled in Phoenix changes annually. In 2008, the city hosted 3,392, while in 2018, the number was 1,054. Arizona has generally been a welcoming place for refugees. Most famously, Phoenix was the location of the Arizona Lost Boys Center, which found homes for many young boys displaced by the civil war in Sudan.
Three years ago, all immigration from Syria was halted, including for refugees who’d had multiple background checks, were already cleared for placement and were coming for medical treatment. “This was not a matter of safety, but of playing to prejudices,” Augustine said. With a recent shift in immigration policy, Augustine expects to be assisting new Syrian refugees in Phoenix.
And being Jewish plays a role in her work. “The refugee story is our story, which helps most Jews relate to the plight of others forced from their homes,” Augustine said. Every Passover, her family imagines themselves required to flee. “You have one hour before you leave forever. What three things would you take?” they will soon be asking one another with the holiday fast approaching.
Judaism encourages involvement with the world’s problems and directs Jews to help refugees, she said. From the ethical teachings of Pirkei Avot to the Torah’s commandments to love and welcome the stranger, she feels morally obligated to help immigrants.
“I love that justice and charity are combined in the single Hebrew word tzedakah,” she said.
In 2017, Let’s Read Neighbor connected Augustine with a Syrian family with five boys who had arrived before Trump’s ban was realized. She and Hanan, the wife and mother, had Turkish coffee and cookies while Hanan communicated she was trapped at home and needed to learn English.
When they first met, Hanan’s husband was working a minimum-wage job that he held for three years before being laid off due to COVID-19. In some countries, refugees begin working only after they’ve had ample opportunity to learn the local language. “Our system handicaps them, trapping them in menial jobs,” Augustine said.
Hanan was delightful, eager to learn English, make American friends and understand American culture, said Augustine. This is despite the trauma and pain she experienced fleeing to Turkey from Aleppo after her apartment and business were bombed.
Hanan had terrible tooth decay, and the state doesn’t provide dental care for adults. Neither do minimum wage jobs. Through RCP, Augustine connected a dental hygiene student in need of volunteer hours with Hanan. In addition, Augustine completed paperwork for benefits, apartments, school enrollment, green cards, insurance and myriad other situations.
Since the pandemic began, Augustine has seen less of the family, but there were periods when she visited five days a week. “The children call me Grandma,” she said.
She believes the most important thing people can offer is sincere welcome and friendship.
“It’s human beings who inflicted harm, and it’s human beings who can give back,” she said.
The family knows she’s Jewish, but have no real understanding of what that means. They’re observant Muslims and know little about other religions, except for a vague idea of what Christianity is and who Jesus was, according to Augustine.
“Hanan declared, ‘I love all people.’ Despite everything her family has been through, this remains true,” said Augustine.
Within her various volunteer groups, Augustine’s witnessed anti-Catholic bigotry, anti-Muslim bigotry and anti-Mormon bigotry, and said her work has revealed some of her own false assumptions. “I’ve experienced anti-Semitic micro-aggressions, but not from refugees,” Augustine said. “It’s always misguided and misinformed.” She’s aware that the families she’s involved with will eventually be exposed to anti-Semitic tropes and ideas, and is hopeful that knowing her will forestall prejudices.
Augustine is an admirer of Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz and Arizona Jews for Justice’s work with asylees. She would like to see the rest of Greater Phoenix’s Jewish community get involved, especially since more refugees will likely start arriving in the fall.
Regardless, she will continue her own work. “Helping refugees has been one of the great honors of my life,” she said. JN