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2015-10-09 digital edition

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October 9, 2015  RSS feed
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Gulf Coast JFCS helps Syrian families find new life here after fleeing from civil war

Jewish Press

The news is saturated with stories of Syrian refugees fleeing their country, most times by sailing in poorly constructed boats or walking long distances just to find a place that will shelter them and their families. The stories seem a world away, but Gulf Coast Jewish Family & Community Services has been doing its part to help right here in the Tampa Bay area.

Gulf Coast is currently working with two Syrian families, said Sylvia Acevedo, director of Gulf Coast’s Florida Center for Survivors of Torture.

The two families each have young children with them: one couple has one son and one daughter, both under the age of 10. The second family has four children, ranging in age from 12 years to 16 months.

Both families are considered “survivors of torture,” Acevedo said. “They are receiving intensive case management through our program.”

With Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent announcement that the U.S. will increase the number of Syrian refugees taken in, Acevedo said the staff is prepared to house even more people and ensure they are able to transition into life in the United States.

Through a partnership with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), Gulf Coast has established a history of providing safe harbor for those who are displaced. HIAS works with organizations around the country such as Gulf Coast that are best able to accommodate a refugee’s language abilities, religious beliefs, housing and employment needs.

Before refugees can be considered for relocation, they must have fled their home country and sought asylum in another country before coming to the U.S.

Acevedo said there is a common misconception of what it means for people to be a refugee, especially since “refugee” and “immigrant” seemed to be used interchangeably in the media.

“A refugee doesn’t choose to leave their country, their belongings, their house and their schools,” said Acevedo. “They are persecuted and often tortured. They’ve left everything behind. They are not economic immigrants. They are fleeing their home and losing everything.”

Coming to the states doesn’t seem to alleviate refugee fears either. Acevedo said the two Syrian families weren’t willing to be interviewed by a reporter the previous day because of their concern for family members still in harm’s way.

One of the fathers, who is already working, speaks English and is well educated, was terrified at the prospect of showing his face on television, she said.

There are bright notes that play after the heartache, though. Acevedo spoke about a Cuban refugee named Aida. She had been a practicing psychologist when she and her husband fled and had to leave their two daughters and her career that spanned 25 years behind. Immediately after entering Gulf Coast’s program, she began studying at the University of South Florida to get her U.S. license. Temple Beth-El in St. Petersburg assisted by donating a computer that Aida used for school.

“This is an example of the resilience, the desire to get ahead that refugees come with,” said Acevedo.

Recently Aida learned that she would be able to bring her two daughters over to the U.S. as well.

Among the services provided by Gulf Coast are childcare, housing, job placement, English training and medical screening for the first 90 days. They also partner with the Clearwater Police Department and, quarterly, they teach the refugees about local and state laws.

For more information on Gulf Coast’s refugee resettlement and Survivors of Torture programs, call (727) 450-7273 or visit

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