Suzanne Bearman: Settling the "Stateless"
What is it like to pack up a limited amount of your belongings, leave behind family and friends and move your family to a strange country where you don’t know a soul and you don’t even speak the language? How incredible is it that on the other end, you’ll have a community that you will grow to trust – a community that will assist with housing, job placement, medical, care, language instruction, cultural competency and so much more?
Next Sunday, Jan. 22, we will celebrate how the Birmingham Jewish Community became home to more than 110 immigrants of all ages from the Former Soviet Union, with the screening of the documentary film “Stateless,” which tells the story of Soviet emigres who spent months in Italy waiting for the refugee status that would allow them to enter the United States.
It was the late 1980s, a time when thousands of Jews in the then-Soviet Union were finally granted exit visas after decades of denial. Jewish communities throughout the United States mobilized to resettle them, and Birmingham was no exception.
Once the families were slated to come to Birmingham, a coordinated effort was required to get them settled, recalled Suzanne Bearman, who was vice president and later president of Jewish Family Services, the new agency that was responsible for giving arriving families the tools they needed to succeed. Most families arrived with little or no money, and many with little or no English skills. “Friendship families were a big thing, and we also had a doctors’ committee, an apartment set-up committee, a job development committee, even an airport welcoming committee,” Suzanne said. In addition, JFS sponsored English classes and a job placement service.
“After the first group came, they became anchor families for the groups that came after them – so that while JFS provided the dollars, they would be the ones who made up the beds, went to the grocery store and helped to get everything ready for the new arrivals,” she continued. “Our immediate goal was to make them independent as quickly as possible. It was a necessity, because the U.S. government gave us money for four months. So they had to learn English and get a job quickly.”
In addition to the political and economic freedoms offered by life in America, the newcomers experienced other positive outcomes. They formed strong bonds with each other and in the greater community. And CJFS continued to evolve and grow, stepping in to meet new needs as they developed.
While CJFS continues to support families in maintaining their independence and enjoying an enriched quality of life, the agency’s primary focus today is older adults, who are served regardless of faith or financial circumstance. Many of the Soviet refugees who were resettled in Birmingham in the late 1980s and early 1990s are now in their 80s, and many continue to be served by CJFS in various ways.
The Jan. 22 “From Stateless to Settled” program will be at Temple Beth El. The program will begin with a Russian Tea Reception at 3pm, followed by a screening of the documentary “Stateless” at 4 p.m. The program is sponsored by the Birmingham Jewish Federation, Temple Beth-El Foundation, CJFS, Suzanne and Howard Bearman, Micky and Stanley Rubenstein and the Robert Lawrence Bonfield Enhancement Fund of the Birmingham Jewish Foundation. The event is free, but reservations are required by contacting Florina Newcomb. For more information on the documentary, visit http://www.stateless.us/