Refugee Shabbat at Congregation B’nai Jacob 2024

On Friday evening, March 15, Congregation B’nai Jacob observed Refugee Shabbat, hosting two guest speakers from Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), the primary refugee resettlement agency in Connecticut -- Maggie Mitchell Salem and Daad Serweri.  (See their photos, attached)

Maggie Mitchell Salem is the new Executive Director of IRIS, following the retirement of long-time director Chris George.  Although Maggie has only been working at IRIS since January, her varied career has prepared her well for the task.  She began as a foreign service officer for the U.S. State Department and later held leadership roles in organizations dedicated to promoting democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, advancing the teaching and learning of Arabic as a global language, and serving the needs of refugees. 

Maggie framed her talk around the important role that JCARR and other Co-sponsor groups with IRIS play in refugee resettlement.  She credited JCARR with having resettled more families than any other Co-sponsor group in the state and said that the success of JCARR and similar groups of volunteers has helped IRIS to promote Co-sponsorship as a national model for refugee resettlement. As JCARR volunteers, we tend to focus on helping one family or one person at a time, but Maggie zoomed out to reveal a much bigger picture.  She stressed the importance of groups like JCARR in welcoming the ever-growing numbers of refugees in today’s conflict-torn world.  Her talk presented the urgency of the immigration crisis in our country and our region, but at the same time gave us hope that something could be done about it – and that, through JCARR, we are indeed doing our part.

The evening’s second speaker was Daad Serweri, the Community Sponsorship Program Manager at IRIS.  Daad is from Afghanistan, and his career there began as an English teacher and later included many years working in the field of non-profits and international affairs. He served as a liaison officer for the U.S. military and as a political advisor for the Danish Embassy.  In 2017, Daad immigrated to the United States with a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), and that same year he began to work at IRIS. 

In his current role Daad oversees and works closely with Co-Sponsor groups, including JCARR.  JCARR volunteers have come to respect and rely on him both for his knowledge of the vast bureaucracy of refugee resettlement and his compassion for the challenges faced by individual families.  In return, Daad is one of JCARR’s biggest fans.  Daad’s talk touched on both these elements. He explained the bureaucratic hurdles and lengthy vetting process that refugees must overcome before arriving in the United States, as well as the challenges faced upon arrival.  His appreciation for JCARR came through loud and clear as he described the work of Co-sponsor groups in general, and the accomplishments of JCARR in particular.

Reading the news accounts of the immigration crisis in the world and in the U.S. can be extremely discouraging.  But this year’s Refugee Shabbat at B’nai Jacob provided a sense of gratification from knowing that JCARR is contributing to the efforts to welcome refugees and to make their lives better.  The evening was made all the sweeter by being capped by a delicious basbousa semolina cake baked by Aminah, whose family was resettled by JCARR in 2016. Now she and her husband have stable jobs and own a house, their children are getting a good education, and they are all American citizens.

With thanks to Kate Ezra for offering this report on Refugee Shabbat at CBJ

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