Local religious organizations help Salt Lake-bound refugees resettle

Published: Tuesday, June 10 2014 5:45 p.m. MDT

Updated: Tuesday, June 10 2014 5:49 p.m. MDT

Immigrant service coordinator Marina Varshavsk, left, Fira Litman, and Efim Beilin take a look at Litman's old photo album at her home Friday, May 30, 2014, in Salt Lake City. Litman and Beilin moved to Salt Lake City from Belarus with help from the Jewish Family Services.

Hugh Carey, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When Fira Litman and Efim Beilin fled from persecution in Belarus in 1994, they had nothing.

They settled in Utah and received immediate financial and emotional help from Jewish Family Services.

Decades later, those at the agency feel an obligation to help them — and others who came from the former Soviet Union around the same time — to "age in place," or stay in their home as they age, according to Ellen Silver, Jewish Family Services executive director. It is often particularly important for these refugees — many of whom were persecuted before coming to the United States — to retain their autonomy.

"Aside from the fact that there's generally no one who speaks their native tongue or understands their culture, it's a very traumatic setting to be told when you're going to eat and sleep and shower," Silver said.

Theirs is one of many stories of refugees in Utah who have been assisted by religious organizations in the state that offer counseling, food, English classes and many other services. The state's Department of Workforce Services coordinates assistance for most refugees who come to Utah. Its refugee resettlement program works with several agencies to best meet each refugee family's needs.

The local organizations affiliated with religious groups help with the understanding that those being served may never enter a chapel, synagogue, temple or other house of worship.

"I can tell you generally that religions, both here and in the U.S., have (played) a tremendous role and have traditionally" in resettling refugees since the nationwide resettlement program began in the mid-1970s, said Gerald Brown, Utah Department of Workforce Services state refugee coordinator.

An immigrant service coordinator with Jewish Family Services arranges for Russian-speaking cooks to make meals for Litman, 90, and Beilin, 91, whose only son died. She helps them with logistics such as setting up doctors appointments and takes Litman, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, to a senior center a few times a week. Years ago, their son struggled with alcoholism. Jewish Family Services gave him the help he needed to overcome his addiction.

The couple felt a need to give back to others out of gratitude for the services they've been given over the years. Beilin and Litman both sang in a community choir, providing music for Holocaust commemorations and other events. They also served as foster grandparents through the Salt Lake County parks and recreation program. Litman hummed as the immigrant service coordinator explained that she learned American lullabies for the children she helped.

"It was the joy of their life," said Marina Varshavsky, Jewish Family Services immigrant service coordinator.

Refugees receive the service with no expectation of their conversion to a particular faith. Jewish Family Services is not connected with a synagogue, and relief agencies such as Catholic Community Services and LDS Welfare and Humanitarian Services have a strict policy to not proselytize to refugees while they are still vulnerable after relocation.

"We connect people with their religion of choosing," said Adan Batar, director of the refugee resettlement and immigration program at Catholic Community Services.

Batar escaped Somalia in 1992 and after spending two years in a refugee camp, came to the United States. He already knew English before he arrived and his background as a lawyer has allowed him to work as an immigration attorney. He is trying to help other refugees find similar success.

"We need to provide them with what they need so that they don't fail," he said.

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