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2017-03-24 digital edition

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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2019 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved.


March 24, 2017  RSS feed

Text: T T T

Panelists discuss challenges faced by refugees


Felician K. waited nearly 20 years in a refugee camp in Zambia before coming to America,with help from Gulf Coast Jewish Family & Community Services. He helps teach other refugees how to drive and find jobs. Felician K. waited nearly 20 years in a refugee camp in Zambia before coming to America,with help from Gulf Coast Jewish Family & Community Services. He helps teach other refugees how to drive and find jobs. Wearing a white sport jacket decorated with silver embroidered designs, Felician K. stood behind a black podium at the Florida Holocaust Museum. He had come to the United States in 2015. Before that, he told the audience, he had been living in a refugee camp in Zambia for close to 20 years.

“Leaving the camp,” said Felician, “meant we could be arrested, we could be beaten, we could be killed.”

Felician, whose full name was not provided, and other refugees didn’t know where they would be sent once they were told they were finally relocating to a new country. Some refugees were sent to Australia, some to Canada. Felician was one of the ones chosen to come to the United States, with the help of Gulf Coast Jewish Family & Community Services.

Crafts made by refugees in the Tampa Bay area were on display at the meeting. Crafts made by refugees in the Tampa Bay area were on display at the meeting. On Monday, March 13, Felician spoke to an audience of about 100 as part of a panel, based on the concept of “welcoming the stranger,” an effort to explain why refugee resettlement programs should be supported no matter where one’s faith lies.

Other panelists included: Anne Marie Winter, Gulf Coast Chief Operating Officer; Rabbi Michael Torop of Temple Beth-El in St. Petersburg; and Rev. Patrice Curtis of Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater.

A simple sign

Rev. Curtis said the decision to help refugees was an easy one for her and her congregation because they are called to act.

She said that her congregation decided to put a large green and yellow sign on the side of their building that acknowledged they accepted and welcomed refugees.

It was up for a few months before someone outside the church took it down. They replaced it, but that time it only lasted a week. They decided to make smaller signs they could reprint on a copier, which would cut down on the cost of replacing the signs. A printer in the area heard about their problem and offered to reprint the signs on vinyl backing for them at no cost, for as long they needed them.

People who have seen the signs have also offered to help with jobs for the newcomers and with donations of toiletries, tutoring and more.

“Something as simple as a sign.” said Rev. Curtis. “People actually notice these things.”

Rabbi Torop said that helping others was a defined staple of Judaism.

“It’s clear what our moral mandate is,” said the rabbi. “We expressly say it’s part of what we do is to improve ourselves and to improve our world.”

The most vulnerable

Winter told the audience that in 2016, Gulf Coast sponsored 125 families that were relocated to the Tampa Bay area. Though the initial plan was to raise that number to 225 in 2017, with recent restrictions on immigration put forward by the Trump administration, they estimate the agency will only be able to help between 70 to 80 families.

The problem with this, she said, is that refugees are the people who are the most vulnerable. The Department of Homeland Security determines which countries have the most helpless people, and U.S. agencies work with the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees to interview refugees prior to their arrival.

Out of the millions of people affected by war, famine, crime and/or civil unrest, the U.S. had planned to take 100,000, a number that under the new administration is expected to drop to around 50,000.

Assistance offered

The refugees that do make it here have some help, but not enough, Winter said. The airline flight to bring them to the U.S. is made possible by a temporary loan that must be paid back. They are required to find a job within 30 days, whether or not they can speak English. They must be able to pay for their apartment within 90 days, and their children must be enrolled in schools, again regardless of their mastery of the language.

Gulf Coast helps them with their initial apartments and furnishings. They teach refugees how to ride the bus and they partner with Clearwater Police Officer Raymond Croze, who explains local laws to them.

“We want them to know they can come to us,” Croze told the Jewish Press in a telephone interview. “The last thing we want is them, or anyone, to be scared of us. We want them to know that we are here for them, too.”

The Refugee Outreach program began 17 years ago when the city of Clearwater noticed there was an increasing number of refugees coming to the area.

Croze, who has been working with the program for four years, is the only officer that assists with a Hispanic outreach and refugee outreach programs. However, the Clearwater Police Department plans to expand and transition the program into becoming the Intercultural Advocacy Institute.

Although he didn’t work with Felician, Croze said the biggest challenge with refugees seems to be the culture shock and the mental trauma that some of them have gone through. He praised organizations like Gulf Coast and the Unitarian Universalists for helping as much as they can, saying that it’s extremely difficult for people to leave one country to go to another without anything.

Refugee women who have settled in the Tampa Bay area, including women from Syria, Iraq, Cuba, Sierra Leone and Somalia, get together every other week to work on crafts and bond as a way to get over their culture shock. Currently, the women are short on craft supplies and donations to help provide the women with items to make crafts are needed. To make a donation or for more information on what is needed, contact Marisol Sedore, project coordinator, at (727) 450-7283, or email

Rev. Curtis helps children in school get enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESOL) classes. She and her staff also help with incidents of bullying at school, citing that schools seem to respond more quickly when they know someone is watching.

There is other assistance as well for incoming refugees. The state Department of Children and Families helps to provide temporary cash assistance and food stamps, Pinellas County Technical College (PTEC) helps to get people enrolled in trade schools and certificate programs and some companies in the community help to find jobs.

Even Felician is doing his part by teaching newcomers how to drive and find jobs while he works as a translator for Gulf Coast. He considers himself the head of his family – him and the 11 people who came with him from the Congo, including a baby.

“I will not abuse this privileged help from the United States of America,” he said. “This land has given me more peace, better peace than I ever have had before.”

For more information on the Gulf Coast refugee program, visit or call (727) 479-1800.

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