For the first time in decades, the United States is no longer the world’s top country for refugees. The Trump administration passed executive orders to limit the number of refugees the country would accept, the latest of which is set to cap the number of refugees during the fiscal year of 2020 at 18,000 people. In comparison to the 85,000 refugees admitted to the U.S. in fiscal 2016 under the Obama administration, that number is pretty bleak.
Luckily, that hasn’t stopped many young people in the U.S. from fighting on behalf of refugees.
Case in point: Three Jewish teenagers from across the States have been working tirelessly to help struggling refugees in their own communities. All recipients of the 2019 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, Josh Finkelman, Grace Freedman, and Lucy Becket have each created non-profits in the pursuit of giving their neighbors the support they need to thrive in the U.S. Read more about these three amazing teens and the organizations they’ve started below.
As a first generation American, Josh Finkelman, 18, understands the roadblocks refugees face. After visiting a resettlement agency, the Russian-Jewish student decided he needed to do more to help the San Diego community.
“Inside, around 20 children were gathered in a classroom. These children — standing in front of me and having fun — once knew the daily sounds of bombs and gunfire,” Finkelman said. “What if they, like my father, fall into poverty?”
When Finkelman’s family first arrived in America, the government did little to help them get on their feet. So he created Equal Voice Initiative, a non-profit whose mission is to “help those whose voices are forgotten” in the San Diego community.
“I am grateful that America let in my parents, grandparents, and all the refugees I have met, but we must work to keep it a land of opportunity if America is to remain beautiful,” Finkelman said.
Equal Voice Initiative has helped over 5,000 refugees since its inception by “teaching them things like money management, navigating public transit, CPR, and English.”
Finkelman also wants to help other children like how his teachers helped him navigate his childhood. “I give them a shoulder to cry on,” he said. “I fight relentlessly to give them a chance to escape their poverty — like the one I was given.”
After volunteering for World Relief, a global humanitarian nonprofit, Grace Freedman’s mind started racing. She had just spent the day with refugee children and couldn’t stop thinking about them. Freedman witnessed the difficulties they face, from poverty to language barriers, and with the organization losing funding, she felt compelled to hatch a plan of action.
“As [a] Jew whose family relocated to this nation many decades ago, also under terrible circumstances, I simply wasn’t willing to be a bystander in this process,” Freedman, 17, says.
So Freedman made JaxTHRIVE with her co-founder Chase Magnano, a non-profit that helps refugee students thrive in their new home in Jacksonville, Florida. The goal? To provide them with a nurturing environment where they can grow emotionally, learn life skills, and get extra tutoring to help them flourish in their communities. Refugee students are welcome to JaxTHRIVE every Saturday during the school year for tutoring in subjects like vocabulary, reading, math, and STEM.
Now a freshman at Yale University, Freedman’s efforts have helped many refugee children adapt to a new culture with a supportive collective of volunteer teens.
“Not only is the JaxTHRIVE program providing a welcoming base of support for these local refugee children, we are inspiring other teens in our community to give back to society,” Freedman says.
Lucy Becket of Elk Grove, California is a similar-minded humanitarian. While working at the Mitzvah Corps Pacific Northwest summer camp for refugee children in the summer of 2017, Becket was amazed by the transformative experience the campers had.
Realizing how influential summer camp can be, Becket, 17, dreamed of recreating that summer experience for refugee children in her community back in California.
“When I asked the director of Mitzvah Corps about how he started the summer camp, he explained that it was much more complex and difficult than I thought it was, and that I wouldn’t be able to do the same thing as I’m only a teenager,” Beckett says.
But Becket did do it.
Defying the odds, Becket, also a 2019 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam award, created Camp Nefesh, an organization that aims to provide refugee children in the Sacramento area with the traditional summer camp experience, from swimming and dancing to playing.
“I know I can’t fix the problem of finding safe places for refugees and immigrants of the world, but I hope that Camp Nefesh has done something to help.”
Header Image design by Grace Yagel; photo by Mario Gutiérrez.
The Diller Tikkun Olam Awards recognize 15 Jewish teens each year for their extraordinary community service work. Tikkun Olam, which means repairing the world, is exactly what these teens are doing – showing incredible innovation, creativity, and leadership in their communities and around the world. Alma is proud to partner with the Diller Foundation to share their amazing stories.