by Olivia Hamilton
A group of children sit in a classroom playing a variety of games. The scene is reminiscent of those days in elementary school when it rained, forcing students to remain in their rooms for recess. How- ever, this classroom gathering is not the result of a rainy day. And this classroom is not full of only Westfield children. While impossible for an observer to tell, half of the children in this room have faced experiences unimaginable to most adults. Half of these children are refugees.
This was the atmosphere at the first meeting of the Fun Bunch Club, a club organized to bring refu- gee families and American volunteers together. In the midst of controversy and division over America’s stance on refugees, we often lose sight of the moments of compassion that unite us in our human- ity. Below are two stories of four people who are devoting their time and efforts to help fellow humans. They are certainly not the only people helping refugees, but their actions help to fill in the narrative of kindness and empathy that is too often forgotten.
The Fun Bunch Club
Organized by Westfield residents Jennifer Tananbaum and Alissa Berger, The Fun Bunch Club pro- vides refugee families with support and compassion. On Saturday morning, they ran the first meeting of their club, located at Temple Emanu-El.
Refugee families were welcomed by adult and teen volunteers when they arrived. A variety of activities were available for the children to enjoy, ranging from games and arts and crafts to homework and reading help. It was impossible not to smile, as the rooms and hallways were full of children making sticker collages, Play-Doh sculptures and play- ing intense games of Jenga.
While Berger and Tananbaum do not have prior experience working with refugees, they do not be- lieve that’s necessary. “When it comes down to it as Jews, all of our families were refugees at one point or immigrants or had to flee a situation that was not safe and wished they could go to a place where they were welcome and helped,” said Tananbaum. “We have no experience, but it doesn’t matter because people help people.”
The inspiration for the club came from Berger’s son. “We watched a documentary on Syria and the Syrians leaving the country,” said Berger. “It was about what they were going through in the war and my son wanted to help.”
Berger started to raise money for a charity called ShelterBox, which provides supplies, like tents and food, to people when they enter refugee camps. “My son decided to raise money for ShelterBox and the rabbi found out and asked if we wanted to lead the coalition for the temple,” said Berger. From there, she reached out to Tananbaum, and now they work together to help refugees.
The group aims to connect refugees who need help with Americans who are eager to get involved. “The goal is to ultimately help people,” said Berger. “We help the parents find jobs if they don’t have jobs and help the children learn English better and become better readers and writers.”
High school sophomore Lana Mahmood, a refugee from Iraq who has been living in Elizabeth for four months, attended the meeting because her mom thought it would be a good chance for her to meet people. “I’m so excited to be here [in America],” she said. “People have been very friendly.”
Beyond providing refugees a support group, the Fun Club also aims to create an environment for socialization. “We give them a fun place to just play and do art and not have to worry about anything,” Tananbaum said.
As children and their parents converse with volunteers, both groups benefit. For refugees, the club gives them a chance to practice English and share their stories. For volunteers, conversations with refugees give them insight into the experiences refugees face and make it easier to develop empathy. The club is scheduled to meet every Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon.
Said Tananbaum: “We really just want to create that environment where they know they are wel- come. We don’t care where they’re from, what their religion is or who they are.”
Interfaith Refugee Family Support
Westfield residents Elisa Sananman and Domi- nique Trott are also helping refugees through the local coalition Interfaith Refugee Family Support. The coalition is working with two families who have been living in the U.S. for around a year.
Interfaith Refugee Family Support focuses on welcoming families and helping them adjust to the U.S. “The very first issue addressed is that families know that people care about them,” said Sananman.
Added Trott: “I think that’s the most important thing, knowing that someone on the ground here looks out for them a little bit like family.” Her fam- ily worked with a refugee from Afghanistan, and although he has moved away from Westfield, they remain in contact. “We text regularly, even just for him to hear ‘How are you today?’ ” she explained.
Once the refugee families know that they have someone to trust and who will support them, the coalition works to help them become self-sufficient. “In a nutshell, [the goal is] to deliver kindness, to deliver welcome, but then to deliver opportunities for self-sufficiency,” said Sananman. “We could pay the rent indefinitely, but wouldn’t it be better to engage people in a way that brings them into the community through their work and give feedback to their language skills as well?”
According to Sananman, much of the coalition’s work to help the refugees achieve self-sufficiency involves ESL training, mentoring, helping with the process of obtaining green cards, helping students find scholarships and helping adults find cars.
In December, the coalition organized a craft show at Trott’s house, where Syrian women displayed items such as jewelry and baked goods. “That was an example of giving Syrian women who are look- ing to earn a small living a venue to sell,” said Trott.
Another initiative the coalition is working on is a Syrian women’s supper club. This entails someone hosting a dinner party, inviting their friends and then paying Syrian women to cook for the party. The coalition is also exploring the feasibility of helping the men become Uber drivers, according to Sananman.
While some of the initiatives focus on helping the adult refugees find jobs, Sananman and Trott are also investing time in helping the children. The young refugees have a greater chance of becoming fluent in English with the help of a tutor and can have a future in America. “There are a lot of children,” said Sananman. “The children are the real hope.”
From the work of Interfaith Refugee Family Sup- port to the meetings of the Fun Bunch Club, people in Westfield are demonstrating the kindness neces- sary to help refugees feel welcome in America. Their work is a profile of compassion: of reaching out to humans in need. While many news stories focus on our divisions, these Westfield residents exemplify how kindness and humanity unite us.
“It doesn’t matter where they’re from,” said Tananbaum. “If they need or want help, we’re here.”