A Refugee Story Come Full Circle


Thirty years ago, in a room in the Springfield JCC in Springfield, Mass., a group of staff and lay leaders at the center committed to help HIAS resettle a refugee family fleeing its home in pursuit of religious asylum.

That family was mine.

I was 6 years old, living in Baku, Azerbaijan, with my mother, who was 26, my father, 31, and my sister, who was 3. At the time, I was not aware of the profound impact the decision that these people would make would have on me and my family, and that my family would be the recipient of their kindness and generosity.

In Baku, where my father was a senior manager of a large retail chain, we lived a comfortable life. However, as we were in the final years of the Cold War and as tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims rose, it became clear that it was no longer safe for us as Jews to remain there. It was then that my parents made the difficult yet brave decision to leave our home, to become refugees and to seek asylum in America. Thus began our journey.

My family’s move resembled that of so many immigrants: a large, extended family packing their most important belongings (mostly clothing, photographs and the few valuables that were permitted) into just two suitcases and a couple of small bags. While we awaited passage to America, we were placed in a hostel in Vienna, without much access to food or medical assistance. Yet, while our journey was challenging, our difficulties were abbreviated and assuaged by HIAS; my parents applied through HIAS to resettle, and through some miracle, we were selected.

After a month in Vienna, we arrived at Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Conn. There, we were greeted by people we didn’t know, but who had anticipated our arrival and had arranged both temporary and more permanent accommodations for us.

Last week, I sat in a small room at Temple Shaaray Tefila, a Reform synagogue on the Upper East Side where I serve as the director of development, as lay leaders, senior staff and clergy made the commitment to work with HIAS to help resettle a family seeking asylum in the coming weeks. Like the very group that gathered 30 years ago to help my family, Shaaray Tefila’s Refugee Task Force has taken it upon itself to raise money, procure clothing and furniture, seek medical assistance and job placement for a family. Today, our volunteers are doing everything in their power to assure that this family’s resettlement process and transition into a new culture and society goes as smoothly as possible.

Since our arrival in the United States, I have been able to experience the power of Jewish community. It was HIAS, JFS (Jewish Family Service) of Western Massachusetts, the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts, the Springfield JCC and the dedicated volunteer community that worked together to set my family up for success, that embraced us and lifted us up when we needed it most. The Jewish community’s dedication to help others inspired me to become a Jewish professional and to commit my own life to giving back.

As we ready ourselves to shelter a new family, I am again inspired by a Jewish community that continues to realize the importance of supporting refugees, and feel blessed to work at an institution that enacts its values in this way.

It is difficult to describe the emotions I felt sitting in that room last week, having once been the recipient of this kindness and now being in a position to pay it forward. I’m reminiscent of my own journey, which feels a world away and yet is still so relevant; I feel empowered by the knowledge that the decisions made in a small room actually change lives; and I stand in awe of my parents and all parents who realize the uncertain journey before them and, nevertheless, pursue it. 

Anna Stein is director of development at Temple Shaaray Tefila on the Upper East Side.