By Justin Vellucci
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
It took Benedict Killang 20 years to find a home.
Killang was displaced from his hometown in native Sudan at age 13. As a refugee, he crossed borders into Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria.
“Being a refugee is very difficult. You live in a refugee camp and you live in a country that’s not your country,” says Killang, now 49. “You have no social support net. Hearing I was going to be resettled in the United States? I was very happy. I was going to start a new life.”
Killang came to Pittsburgh in 2003. He later worked for seven years for Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS), helping others, like him, start a new life in the United States. He said he was inspired to do the work because he wanted to give something back to those who helped bring him to the U.S.
Today, Killang, once known as one of the “lost boys of the Sudan,” lives in Pittsburgh’s South Hills, works for Allegheny County Department of Human Services – he speaks only for himself, not the county – and gives talks about refugee and immigrant rights at local churches and synagogues.
“It is better for me to talk on the behalf of those who cannot make it here, who have no hope,” Killang says. “Sharing stories helps people understand what it means to be a refugee and wanting to have a chance in life.”
– a man whose name we will not repeat here out of respect to the community — made antisemitic remarks about a refugee and immigrant-aid organization one of the congregations supports. But the ties between Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and refugee resettlement is stronger than the headlines – it resonates, at its core, with tikkun olam, the Jewish ideal of helping to repair the world.
“You welcome the stranger – that says it all.”
That’s Carolyn Ban, 76, a retired University of Pittsburgh professor who lives in Squirrel Hill and formerly headed the social action committee for Dor Hadash, one of the congregations attacked last year.
“The refugee experience is personal – all or most of us have parents or grandparents who were refugees,” she says.
Dor Hadash and a second Pittsburgh congregation, Beth Shalom, hosted a Shabbat event for refugees in October 2018. But Dor Hadash reaffirmed its support for the cause 10 days after the shooting when congregants voted to continue backing HIAS, formerly known as Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
“We don’t back down,” Ban says.
Neither does Mark Hetfield. Hetfield joined HIAS in 1989 and became its president in 2013. The organization, which is based outside Washington, D.C., was founded in 1881, as Jews fled programs and persecution in Eastern Europe and what is now Russia.
“We’re now in a time where Jewish immigrants don’t require our services but many non-Jews do,” said Hetfield, who reiterated the importance of tikkun olam. “We consider ourselves to be more Jewish than we’ve ever been.”
Hetfield says America has changed dramatically since HIAS helped settle Jewish immigrants in the 19th century, and even more dramatically in recent years.
“Now, frankly, we see the American government as both an adversary and a partner,” says Hetfield, who aimed his remarks at the Trump administration, which has unleashed what he characterized as anti-immigrant rhetoric. “They continue to fund our work but they attack the nature of the work we do.”
Leslie Aizenman avoids the politics of it all. For the past 12 years, she has worked as director of refugee and immigrant service for JFCS, which works with the U.S. Department of State to resettle refugees in Allegheny County.
“To welcome the stranger is the most repeated commandment in the Torah and to repair the world is a Jewish value,” Aizenman said. “[Immigration] has been our experience as a people over the millennia and we have a lot of memory and knowledge of how to help others.”
During the year running from Oct. 1, 2018 to Sept. 30, 2019, JFCS welcomed and helped resettle 123 individuals and families, most of them from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most of them now live in the City of Pittsburgh. JFCS helps them find a place to live – proximity to a bus line is essential – and find work, sometimes manual labor. The organization walks them through other basics, too, like the process of getting a social security card.
“This is the immigrant story – the difference for refugees is they didn’t plan to leave their homeland,” Aizenman said. “It’s a very hard road they’re on. But there’s hope.”