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Saturday, June 22, 2024
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Patrons talk with event organizers at the the Lechayim celebration at the Beth Israel Center on March 18, 2024. 

Madison Jewish organization aids displaced Ukrainians

Jewish Social Services of Madison provides a variety of resources to assist Ukrainian refugees in acclimating to life in Madison.

While the war in Ukraine may be half a world away, the Madison community’s connection to the crisis is not as small as it may appear. 

That’s thanks to Jewish Social Services of Madison (JSS), a social service agency that empowers individuals across generations and cultures through spiritual programs, senior services and a refugee resettlement department. 

JSS’s refugee resettlement department is its largest arm, and it helps connect people who arrive in Madison with the services they need to thrive, according to Kai Mishlove, JSS executive director. 

“We help our Jewish community, but we also help other communities. It is a part of our mission of repairing the world,” Mishlove said. 

JSS is the only resettlement agency in South Central Wisconsin. Each year, JSS welcomes between 125 and 175 people, according to Mishlove.

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Patrons eat at the Lechayim celebration at the Beth Israel Center on March 18, 2024. 

In 1976, JSS helped Jewish refugees escaping the Soviet Union. Today, the organization helps displaced people from all over the world, regardless of religion or cultural background. 

Recently, the JSS has aided Ukrainian families forced out of their homes when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. Since then, nearly 6.5 million Ukrainians have been displaced globally, and 3,672 are now in the U.S. 

Sunday Nzitatira, JSS director of resettlement, oversees the transition for every client. 

Nzitatira said he survived the Rwandan Genocide and moved to the U.S. with his family under refugee status seven years ago. He has worked with refugees through JSS since his arrival.

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The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), JSS’s officiate, will notify Nzitatira between one week to two days before those under refugee status relocate to Madison. After this, JSS’s work on finding housing and resources begins immediately.

Upon arrival, refugees are connected with case managers, and mandatory health screenings are organized to address any health issues, Mishlove said.

For some, this medical attention is more urgent than it is for others. 

“We have had cases where people were coming in, and we knew immediately that when they came in, their child needed open heart surgery,” Mishlove said.

For people moving to a new and foreign community, Mishlove said JSS aims to alleviate the uncertainty that accompanies refugee status. 

“At minimum, [we are] making sure that they receive a cultural meal, they're receiving appropriate clothing, and that they're connected to their community of origin,” Mishlove said. 

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Patrons eat at the Lechayim celebration at the Beth Israel Center on March 18, 2024. 

Navigating barriers

JSS’s resettlement resources are often overwhelmed because of factors unique to Dane County, according to Mishlove. 

“It's difficult to find housing in that timeframe,” Mishlove said. “Sometimes that might mean we have to put somebody up in a hotel because their travel has already been booked and we cannot delay receiving them.” 

Units in Madison cannot house groups of more than five unrelated adults under city housing standards, with an additional adult allowed if all persons have qualifying disabilities. 

This, along with difficulty find affordable four-bedroom apartments for large families, makes it challenging for JSS to accommodate some newcomers, Mishlove said. Affordable housing is JSS’s largest concern before a family arrives.

“We don’t have enough affordable housing for refugees,” Nzitatira explained. 

In it for the long haul

According to Mishlove, JSS strives to help every Ukrainian refugee become financially self-sufficient after three months in Madison. 

During the first 90 days after their arrival, JSS social workers set people up for social security, enroll their children in school and connect people with the resources they need to flourish, Mishlove said. It also finds immediate jobs for its clients so they can start earning wages while helping them find jobs in their respected fields. 

“We have to look at all of these different areas that affect a person's life, and their acclamation,” Mishlove said. “How can we assist them in providing resources to them, given that we have limited resources that exist in Dane County?”

There is more that can challenge a person’s ability to acclimate into a new and foreign space than just legal and medical concerns, Mishlove said. Cultural differences, language barriers and isolation create long-lasting issues for refugees without community resources and support. 

“These are people that are fleeing their country, and they come with trauma, anxiety, PTSD and [other] psychological issues,” Nzitatira said. “We don't have enough resources to deal with that.” 

JSS’s efforts have contributed to growing Afghan and Congolese communities in Madison. In recent years, JSS clients have helped build Madison’s Iraqi, Syrian and Ethiopian communities as well, according to its webpage.

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Maggie Zale

Maggie Zale is a senior staff writer at The Daily Cardinal.

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