Challenges, like trouble, too often come in pairs.
This year, New Jersey saw two major challenges come our way. At the very end of the summer, thousands of Afghani refugees fleeing their country in the face of the Taliban takeover arrived at Fort Dix. And then, just days later, along came Tropical Storm Ida. In one night of torrential rain, Ida washed away the houses of thousands of people in New Jersey, hundreds of them in Elizabeth.
Many New Jersey organizations stepped forward to help, some concentrating on the needs of the Afghani refugees, some on Ida’s victims. One of those organizations, the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, saw the need to step up for both.
In an emergency meeting, held just days after the storm, while some of the floodwaters still hadn’t receded, and while the refugees were just settling into tents at Fort Dix, the executive committee of MetroWest’s board of trustees authorized two $25,000 allocations. The first was earmarked to help resettle the Afghan refugees, and the second was set aside to help house, feed, and support 275 families in Elizabeth who lost everything in Ida’s flash floods.
“It was clear to the members of the executive committee that it was essential to make both of these two emergency allocations,” Linda Scherzer, the director of MetroWest’s community relations committee, said.
“For the executive committee, there was no question that they needed to step up to help these Afghan refugees. They had aligned themselves with U.S. government forces through the 20-year war and now they had to flee for their lives at the last moment.
“We Jews know something about having to flee for our lives. This country provided a safe haven for our grandparents and great-grandparents. We feel a deep sense of responsibility to stand up for others who have found themselves in the same situation.”
Similarly, she continued, “it’s an expression of our Jewish values, to help the homeless and the hungry and those devastated by natural disaster, as were those families in Elizabeth.” The families who lost their homes are living in hotels that FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — is paying for. “But that doesn’t cover everything that these people need,” Ms. Scherzer said.
According to Lindsay Norman, the director of MetroWest’s center for volunteerism, both groups — the Afghani refugees and the survivors of Ida’s floods — have important needs that must be met, but the agency is prioritizing the needs of the families FEMA is housing.
“We know that we can’t just deal with just one of these challenges,” she said. “We know we have to deal with both. The Afghanis now living at Fort Dix will need housing and transportation. Many will need to learn how to adjust to a new culture, which includes learning to speak English. We will do our part to meet their needs. But they are safe now.
“However, there are 275 families in Elizabeth, many low-income. They were already hurting and then they lost everything. They need our help now.”
For that reason, the federation’s volunteers will work directly with the flood victims; the federations has decided to send the funds it allocated for Afghani refugees to the Community Foundation of New Jersey.
Ms. Norman says that she’s heard from many people who have been involved with the volunteer center for years. They’re coming forward to ask how they can help work with storm victims. The center was formed after another, similar disaster, Hurricane Sandy, when the MetroWest community rallied to help in the recovery of the Jersey Shore town of Union Beach. In the years since, the center has provided many different opportunities for volunteers to make a difference.
As with any disaster, there are many ways for volunteers to help. Though it’s still early and it’s still largely a work in progress, some projects are beginning to take shape. “The 275 families are living in temporary housing, some in hotels,” Stacey Brown, MetroWest’s planning and placement director, said . “One way we know we can help is to put together activity packs for kids that will include coloring books and crayons, even Play-Doh, small fidgets, and puppets they can play with.”
Parents have different needs that the volunteers work to meet. “Our volunteers are packing hygiene kits for adults,” Ms. Norman said. “These include things we take for granted, but they just don’t have because it’s all gone — things like shampoo and soap, razors and shaving cream, and other types of toiletries. It was all destroyed in the floodwaters. We’re working in Elizabeth through NJ VOAD.” That’s New Jersey Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster, a coalition that works to coordinate the efforts of all organizations taking part in relief efforts. It’s often first on the ground when disaster strikes.
Ultimately, the center plans to put together welcome baskets for the families, once they find new housing, which everyone hopes will be soon. The baskets will include items for the kitchen, basic items including pots and pans, dishes, silverware, sponges, towels, and even laundry baskets.
Though it’s not something they’re sure they will be doing just yet, Ms. Norman said the federation hopes to be able to offer its volunteers hands-on, in-person work to help the families in Elizabeth rebuild. “There’s word that AmeriCorps, which is a Federal agency, will be setting up shop in New Jersey soon,” she said. “We’ve worked with them before at Union Beach.
“We look forward to rolling up our sleeves and working with them again.”
To volunteer or to make a donation, go to www.jfedgmw.org/idarelief.