When the Pei family, refugees from Myanmar (formerly Burma), arrived at their new residence in South Philadelphia on March 5, they discovered a well-furnished four-room apartment. There were tables, chairs, beds, dressers, a kitchen set and well-stocked cabinets.
For Maung Pei and his wife Mi Nge — who had to flee their homeland nearly two decades ago out of fear of political persecution — the apartment is a far cry from the refugee camp in neighboring Thailand where they were housed for so many years. Camp life was all their children — 19-year-old twin daughters Wia Wia Nay and Wia Wia Thin, and 12-year-old son Wia Lin Aung — ever knew. Wia Wia Thin, the only member of her family who speaks English, described their living arrangements there as a two-room hut made of bamboo and leaves, with a cement floor.
The family's new home furnishings were made possible by congregants from Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood, and its partnership with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and Council Migration of Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization that specializes in resettling refugees, such as the Peis.
HIAS was founded more than 125 years ago to specifically help Jewish immigrants and refugees. Now, according to executive director Judith Bernstein-Baker, the organization assists refugees from more than 100 nationalities; the current focus of the Philadelphia office, she noted, is to bring ethnic Burmese minorities to the city, help them find employment and begin new lives.
Sarah Peterson, director of development and refugee program manager, noted that the relationship between HIAS and the synagogue isn't new; several years ago, Main Line Reform began preparing "shalom baskets," welcoming gifts for all sorts of new Americans (other congregations, including Or Hadash in Fort Washington, also do this).
But, this past winter, Main Line Reform congregants and HIAS volunteer Resa Rudney, who is also a synagogue member, were looking for new ways the synagogue could assist the nonprofit.
Shortly thereafter, Rabbi David Straus announced from the bimah the list of items that were needed — beds, dressers, kitchen items, clothing, linens, toiletries and even toothbrushes.
The donations poured in. Less than two months later, a furnished apartment was ready for the Pei family.
"Here, it's very good," said Wia Wia Thin. She added that her family members feel excited to be here and are getting acclimated to their new surroundings, although they miss their relatives back in the refugee camp and in Myanmar.
Once refugee families have settled in and become self-sufficient, they begin to assist other families arriving in Philadelphia, explained Jessi Koch, refugee resettlement outreach and volunteer manager at HIAS.
On Friday, May 30, members of the Pei family, as well as Aung Myo Thwin and his wife Win Htay, a refugee couple Rudney tutors in English, were welcomed at Main Line Reform Temple for Shabbat services. The synagogue's volunteers also were honored for their efforts.
The fact that the Burmese refugees are Buddhist, Muslim or Christian doesn't matter to those at the synagogue or at HIAS. "They're people who need help," explained Rudney.
Straus noted that the involvement with HIAS particularly resonates with his congregants, since the Torah declares you should assist strangers in your land and remember that "you were strangers in the land of Egypt."
The temple is now getting ready to greet another Burmese refugee family, expected to arrive in Philadelphia July 10.
Peterson added that, as of now, three additional Burmese families are also due to arrive in Philadelphia by Oct. 1.
Helping these people get settled "is one of the most gratifying things I've ever done in my whole life," said Rudney. "These people just appreciate everything so much. We just don't have a clue what their lives were like."