How does one pay the rent? Find a job? Get the landlord to fix the heater? Mail a letter? Shop for groceries? Negotiate public transportation? Learn how to use a computer? Get some kind of an education?
Four men in their early 20s, originally from the Darfur region of Sudan, are facing these questions — and many more — as they embark on new lives in Philadelphia.
They arrived in the city less than a month ago, after spending six years in a refugee camp in Kenya. Three of the four have lost immediate family members as part of the genocidal violence in their homeland.
One of those helping them navigate the unfamiliar terrain is Dina Kopansky, who understands a little something about what it means to be a refugee herself.
Kopansky is the refugee and housing coordinator for HIAS Pennsylvania, the same agency that helped resettle her family when they emigrated from the former Soviet Union in 1991.
During a recent financial literacy session at HIAS’ Center City offices, Kopansky constantly smiled and offered reassurances.
At 23, Kopansky is about the same age as the refugees but, other than that, her biography couldn’t be more dissimilar. The Swarthmore College graduate is heading to law school next year. She was only 2 years old when her family emigrated from Moldava, which was part of the Soviet Union, so she doesn’t remember her actual arrival. But she does recall the first year or two when her family was in transition, living with her great aunt in the Northeast.
She doesn’t pretend to understand what the Darfuris are going through, but Kopansky said she feels a connection to refugees from all parts of the world.
“For me, there is a special element for working with any of our communities,” said Kopansky. “Every refugee that passes through our doors has their own story to tell.”
She said she is “constantly amazed by the strength and the bravery and the resilience of our clients.”
Locally and nationally, HIAS is best known for resettling generations of Jewish refugees. But in 2005, after immigration from the former Soviet Union had slowed to a trickle, HIAS Pennsylvania took the strategic decision to expand its scope and focus on resettling non-Jews from all parts of the globe.
This year represents the first time that HIAS has been asked by the U.S. State Department to resettle refugees from the troubled Darfur region.
HIAS Pennsylvania is one of two affiliates chosen to take part in the effort. The other is in MetroWest New Jersey. Judith Bernstein-Baker, executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania, said Philadelphia was chosen because the agency has experience working with African refugees, and there is already an established Sudanese community here, whose members have volunteered to help the newcomers.
According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which has focused on Darfur because of the genocide there, at least 200,000 people have been killed and more than 2 million have been displaced since 2003, a result of the government-sponsored violence in the western region of Sudan. Advocates say the true numbers haven’t been documented.
Fighting between the government and rebel groups continues, according to United to End Genocide, a Washington, D.C.,-based advocacy group. The United Nations has reported that more than 375,000 civilians have been displaced since 2010.
So far, HIAS has agreed to resettle 23 refugees from Darfur. The first four arrived last month and a group of nine are expected to arrive on March 15.
“It requires a lot of patience and a lot of thoughtfulness,” Bernstein-Baker said, adding that each time HIAS works with a new population, it becomes a learning experience for the organization.
HIAS is reaching out to the local Jewish community for support and specific items to help the Darfuri refugees. (For more information go to hiaspa.org/ get-involved/donate.)
HIAS asked the Jewish Exponent to refrain from interviewing the refugees directly for now, but at the financial session, it was easy to detect the concern and confusion among the newcomers.
One of the refugees asked what happens if HIAS can no longer pay their rent. Minu Mathew, the refugee team supervisor, reassured them that the agency usually helps refugees land a job within 100 days, and that help is available if their salaries prove insufficient.
The same man also remarked that he was finding it hard to occupy his time. Mathew and Kopansky said they would make sure the men were able to find the closest library and gain access to books as well as a place to practice computer skills.
Kopansky and Mathew are part of a five-member resettlement team that helps immigrants with everything from housing to employment to — at least initially — managing their finances. The unit is a diverse group that includes an immigrant from India and an ethnic Nepalese refugee from Bhutan.
Kopansky is working at HIAS through the selective Philly Fellows program, which offers local college graduates yearlong stints at regional nonprofits.
Kopansky said she didn’t know she’d end up at HIAS when she applied to the program, but she said the pairing seemed like a perfect match.
Her primary responsibility is finding housing for refugees. Typically, she gets less than two weeks notice to find her clients an apartment, make sure all necessary repairs are made to it, and reach out to HIAS’s network of donors in order to furnish the place.
She also is working on enlarging HIAS’s contacts among area landlords and trying to convince property owners that refugees make good tenants.
“I’ve never faced the kinds of challenges that I deal with every day here,” she said in an interview this week, just as she was heading to the Northeast to look at an apartment for a family arriving two days later.
“People’s lives are on the line. If I can’t get in touch with somebody’s landlord, and somebody’s hot water isn’t working, they are out hot water until I can get in touch with the landlord,” the future lawyer explained, noting that she’s become interested in housing law as well as immigration law as a result of her HIAS experience. “If we can’t find housing for somebody with no ties here — that’s my responsibility.”
Kopansky said that for her, Jewish identity is more about performing good deeds than observing rituals. She did not have a Bat Mitzvah as a girl but celebrated the right-of-passage in 2009 at the Western Wall as part of a Birthright Israel trip. She was the first member of her family to visit the Jewish state.
“I think that one can argue that there is a Jewish element in helping others in any way, the best that you can,” she said, recalling that she, too, came to this nation as a refugee.
“I might not know every person that helped me get to where I am but, if they hadn’t helped me, I certainly couldn’t be here. I’m committed to giving back as best I can.”