WASHINGTON, Nov. 17 (JTA) — More than a half-million immigrants and refugees from the former Soviet Union have flowed into the United States during the last few decades, but there has been no effort to organize them into a nationwide body — until now. With the help of a government grant, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society is setting up a national network to strengthen and connect local organizations serving Russian Jews. The technical assistance will teach local groups how to apply for federal funding and form social service organizations. The grant will also help local groups share information, conduct training and develop program ideas. The $176,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement will help phase in a project called LOREO — for Local Russian Emigre Organizations — over the next three years. Project coordinators will be put in place this year in New York, Atlanta, San Francisco and Minneapolis. HIAS will provide training and teach the local leaders how to launch advocacy programs and work together with Jewish federations. HIAS also will develop a bilingual civic participation guide to increase voter registration and help Russian emigres become U.S. citizens. An interactive LOREO Web site is also in the works. Planners expect that its message board, monthly calendar and links will help facilitate grass-roots organizing efforts. Since the mid-1970s, HIAS has helped more than 300,000 Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union and its successor states escape persecution and rebuild new lives in the United States. Getting the Russian-speaking population to organize and develop political skills is long overdue, according to Leonard Glickman, president of HIAS. “They should be much further along than they are,” he said. A number of factors have prevented the community from organizing on a national scale. They include a lack of funding, language barriers and a mistrust of government left over from the immigrants’ days in the Soviet Union. Wariness of political organizations has likewise given Russian-speakers little incentive to get involved in American politics. But now it seems the timing is right: Many immigrants and refugees who came to the United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s have established themselves financially. In the Los Angeles area, for example, people are settled and more willing to become involved on a community level, said Helen Levin, the executive director of the Russian community center in West Hollywood. Hundreds of thousands of Russian-speakers live in the Los Angeles area. While most are well-educated and professional, they have to be “more organized and more active in American life,” Levin said. “How to unite them all and interest them all is the crucial question, and that’s what we have to work on.” Some of the most pressing issues for Los Angeles and other communities are after-school programming for immigrant youths, access to Jewish education and care for the elderly. HIAS primarily wants to act as a facilitator and allow the local organizations to team up with federations to become part of the larger American Jewish community, said Marina Belotserkovsky, herself an immigrant from the former Soviet Union and now the director of HIAS’ office of Russian-Community Outreach. The small advocacy efforts of volunteer organizations can coalesce into something more forceful and helpful, Belotserkovsky said. “The community now is very ready,” she added.
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Sharon Samber is a contributing writer to JTA.
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