These California Jews Are Welcoming Refugees — Into Their Homes, For Months
In November 2016, just days after the election, Lili Shidlovski and her partner, Dennis Owen, sat across their kitchen table from a Guatemalan family. The man, who had been in the U.S. for a few years, spoke only a few words of English. His wife and 9-year-old son, who had just been released from a migrant detention center, were sniffling from colds.
A few days before Shidlovski and Owen had responded to a call from an immigrant rights group asking if they would open their home to the recently reunited family. Now, as they communicated through an interpreter over tea and seven-layer cake, Shidlovski, a psychotherapist, wondered what it would be like to share her home with these strangers. Would they become friends? Would their problems become hers?
But if she had any doubts, the shy smiles across the table assuaged them.
A few days later, Jose* and Marta* and their son, Carlos*, moved into the three-bedroom, two-bath house in Alameda, California. Shidlovski and Owen, and Jose and Marta, signed a three-month contract, hoping that the new immigrants would be able to get on their feet by then. As it turned out, they lived together for 20 months, forming a new kind of family bond across culture, language and religion.
Shidlovski, 71, is part of a loose network of more than 50 Jewish families in the San Francisco Bay Area who have opened their homes over the past seven years to refugees and asylum seekers from Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Others have joined “accompaniment teams,” groups of volunteers who help newcomers access social services, find work, learn English, and settle into their new lives.
Jewish hosts have different reasons for taking in immigrants – temporarily filling an empty nest, needing meaningful work after retirement, adding laughter to an otherwise silent home – and tikkun olam, the Jewish value of service to others.
“It’s scriptural,” says Shidlovski. “Saving one life is like saving the world.”
For her, opening her home to a family of strangers is not simply an act of charity; it is a way of paying forward the mercy shown to her own relatives a generation earlier. Her parents, both born and raised in Poland, survived the Holocaust thanks in large part to the kindness of strangers. Her mother, who was in her twenties during World War II, worked as an aide in a convent hospital, the secret of her Jewish identity shielded by a benevolent nun. Though Shidlovski’s mother moved to the U.S. after the war, she maintained a lifelong correspondence with the nun, Michelina.
“This story was part of my life even though I never met her,” Shidlovski said of Michelina. “This idea that a person can really help somebody else and change the course of their life is part of my heritage.”
The efforts of these Jewish hosts have been organized by several agencies in the San Francisco area. The Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity works mostly with Latin American immigrants in detention and those seeking asylum. Shidlovski and Owen are a part of that program. Other Jews in the Bay area volunteer to help resettle refugees through Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay.
Kathryn Winogura, director of volunteer services for Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay in Berkeley, California, said the housing program she manages for refugees today traces its roots to 1877, when the agency was formed to help resettle Jews migrating from Europe. During the late 19th century and for most of the 20th century, the agency served waves of Jewish immigrants, first those fleeing pogroms in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, then people escaping the Nazis, then post-World War II refugees, then Soviet Jews, and finally those coming to the U.S. after the break-up of the Soviet Union.
But in the mid-1990s, the stream of Jewish immigrants dwindled to a trickle. The agency’s leadership decided to expand their immigration efforts beyond the Jewish community and the organization became an affiliate of HIAS (formerly Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), which in turn works with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
JFCS East Bay primarily serves two groups of refugees. One is Afghan nationals who worked in some capacity with the U.S. military or its contractors. Because they are seen as traitors by the Taliban, which has targeted them in their homeland, they are eligible for Special Immigrant Visas from the U.S. government.
The other group of clients is LGBT and intersex refugees, who come from a host of countries where gay and transgender people are not widely accepted. In the past seven years, the agency has resettled 50 LGBTI refugees.
Among that group, Winogura said, “We don’t have a single client who doesn’t have a harrowing story. They’re not just running from the community, their workplace. They’re often running from their families. We have a client whose mother tried to kill him. We have clients who have been imprisoned in their homes by their families.”
Resettling LGBT people presents unique challenges because many don’t feel they can live among their own refugee communities. “They have so much distress and trauma around their own people,” Winogura says.
About 70 percent of the families housing refugees for the agency are Jewish. While Winogura also works with churches and Muslim groups, the agency’s strong ties to the Jewish community make it natural to recruit Jews as hosts.
Many Jews who take refugees and asylum seekers into their homes, like Shidlovski, say they are inspired by the experiences of their parents and grandparents who fled persecution in Europe and settled in the United States. For them, the anti-immigrant sentiments of the Trump administration – the barrage of xenophobic tweets, the commitment to build a wall to keep people out, the policy shifts that divide families and lock people in detention centers – are reminders of the horrors Jews fled in the early to mid-20th century.
Esther Ehrlich, a writer who lives in Richmond, California, grew up hearing references to members of her mother’s family who had been “wiped out in the Holocaust.” From the time she was a young girl she wondered what she would have done had she lived in World War II-era Europe. When Donald Trump became president, after campaigning on an anti-immigrant platform, the situation didn’t feel so hypothetical anymore.
Soon after the 2016 election, Ehrlich, 57, and her husband Neal Davis, 61, began to get involved in the immigration committee sponsored by their temple, Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, California. One day in the late summer of 2017 they received an email saying a young Mexican transgender woman who had been part of an LGBTQ caravan from Central America and Mexico needed a place to stay.
“Here it is,” Ehrlich said, remembering that moment. “There’s a person in a desperate, possibly life-threatening situation. What do we do?” They had just sent their daughter to college on the East Coast and they had an empty room. Their son, a junior in high school, was still living with them.
They decided to offer their home, thinking they’d be a backup, that someone else would step forward. As it turned out, they were the only ones to volunteer.
The next few weeks were a jumble of phone calls and appointments, of preparing and of waiting. They had to present documents – passports, driver’s licenses, tax returns – to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, proving they were able to take responsibility for another human being.
They learned that the asylum seeker they would be hosting was named Valencia* and that she was being held in a detention center in New Mexico in the only unit specifically designated for transgender women. They put money into her commissary account, sent her a Spanish-English dictionary and a few simple children’s books in English, and talked with her on the phone a few times.
Then, as they were waiting to board a flight to go to Davis’ mother’s funeral in New Jersey, the call came from ICE: Valencia was ready for release. Could they buy her a bus ticket and pick her up from the Greyhound station? They asked for a couple of extra days and Ehrlich flew home early to meet Valencia.
“This person comes off the bus and falls into my arms,” Ehrlich recalled. “She was shaking like a leaf, just trembling.” Valencia had been traveling for 32 hours after spending six weeks in the detention center and weeks before that with the “rainbow” caravan of LGBTQ asylum seekers that crossed the U.S.–Mexico border. She was exhausted, scared, raw.
But she was also free. As they were driving back to Ehrlich’s home, Valencia mentioned that the next day was her 25th birthday. Hesitantly, she asked if she could have a party to celebrate her freedom.
The next day Ehrlich brought Valencia to a Mexican grocery store and told her to pick out whatever she wanted to serve at the party. As she passed by the meat counter, Valencia shouted “Salchicha!” and pointed to a display of long hot dogs.
Ehrlich, a vegetarian since she was 12, found herself cooking a stew of hot dogs, mayonnaise and ketchup. But she didn’t mind. “Almost immediately, I felt a deep sense of connection to her and her to me,” she said. “For me, the most surprising part of this has been the love.”
The love grew as they became a family. Valencia shared meals with Ehrlich, Davis and their son, Riley. Every Friday night, they lit the Shabbat candles and said traditional Jewish prayers over challah and wine.
But there were tough times, too. Valencia was lonely and haunted by memories of the abuse she had endured. Until she secured a work permit, she couldn’t hold a job and she’d spend days holed up in her bedroom, depressed and overwhelmed. Even now that she has a work permit and is employed at a local restaurant, she lives in limbo, not knowing if she will be able to stay in the country. Asylum cases typically take years to wend their way through the system and they sometimes end in deportation.
That perpetual uncertainty adds pressure to an already stressful situation, said Carol Rothman, a retired social worker who has been involved with her synagogue’s immigration activities for several years. She notes that life for most refugees and asylum seekers is full of emotional ups and downs.
“They get out of detention and they’re so happy to be free,” Rothman said. “There’s this honeymoon period. Then at some point – one to two months in or after a year – and the history of the trauma that brought them here takes its toll. They start to feel the pain and loss for everyone and everything they left behind.”
Rothman and her husband, Scott Ullman, decided to offer the spare bedroom in their four-bedroom, two-story California bungalow in Berkeley to an immigrant this summer after installing a new bathroom in the room. In early June, Diego*, a young Guatemalan man who came to the U.S. fleeing gangs in his home country, moved in.
Rothman said the hardest part of hosting Diego has been the language barrier. Rothman speaks passable Spanish but her husband doesn’t so they set a new house rule: At dinner everyone starts speaking in English and then they say the same thing in Spanish.
Shidlovski said having people in her home wasn’t always easy. “I have a strong need for time alone and privacy,” she said. “Sometimes it was fine and sometimes it drove me nuts.”
Jose and Marta said living in someone else’s home was hard for them, too.
“When we first came I was so scared,” Marta, 31, said through an interpreter. “I didn’t want to touch anything. When you come here you’re like a baby. You don’t speak the language. You can’t do anything yourself.”
Shidlovski said she often struggled with how much she should do for the family. There were endless trips to the doctor, English classes to sign up for, documents to collect, appointments to arrange. “I’d wonder: When do I walk in front of them to clear the path, when do I walk beside them to make them feel safe and secure, and when do I just step aside?”
When the three months stipulated in their original contract drew to a close, it became clear that the Guatemalan family wasn’t ready to venture out on their own. Jose and Marta were deeply in debt and rents in the Bay Area were among the highest in the country. “They were too traumatized to figure out the next steps,” Shidlovski said, so she and Owen agreed to let the family stay for another year, then a few months more after that.
“They didn’t just provide a place for us to live,” Jose, 34, said through an interpreter. “They gave us a space to heal from our trauma. We felt very supported. It really felt like a family.”
When Marta became pregnant, Shidlovski and Owen knew it was time for the family to move. Jose, a construction worker, was able to find an affordable apartment with help from his church and the family moved to their own place in the summer of 2018. When their daughter was born that fall, they asked Shidlovski and Owen to serve as godparents. A few weeks ago the two families celebrated the baby’s first birthday together.
But even as the families have found joy and love together, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over them. Marta and Carlos have filed for asylum and are awaiting a hearing that will determine whether they can stay in the country they have come to think of as their home.
*The names of the refugees and asylum seekers in this story have been changed to protect their identities.
Correction, December 31, 12:14 p.m.: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Esther Ehrlich; it also misstated the relationship between Ehrlich and her son and daughter.