Refugees Need Basics Like Food, Clothing and Housing. They Also Need Friends.


Rabbi Farbaum singing with children.

When you imagine the challenges refugees face in a new country — finding a place to live, paying for food and getting a job are high on the list. 

But you might not expect something just as important: Making friends.

“It can be as simple as offering to go with someone to the park,” Olga Markus, the religious school director at Temple Emanuel of Greater New Haven, who is from Ukraine and has been working to help refugees, told East Rock Record reporters during an interview.

Newcomers need “little opportunities” to build community, added her husband, Rabbi Michael Farbman of Temple Emanuel. Rabbi Farbman, who was born in Belarus, has traveled to Poland and Spain to help refugees.

After the war in Ukraine began in February 2022, the U.S. agreed to welcome 100,000 refugees. Hundreds have come to Connecticut, including to New Haven and surrounding communities. Individuals like Ms. Markus and Rabbi Farbman and organizations including the Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS) and the Jewish Community Alliance for Refugee Resettlement (JCARR) have been helping.

One new arrival is Arsen Kobylianskyi, a 12-year-old who fled to America with his mother in September 2022. His father is still in Ukraine fighting in the war. Arsen now lives in New Britain and goes to Pulaski Middle School. 

He spoke with East Rock Record reporters about his experience via Zoom. When Arsen first arrived, he said he faced teasing from another boy at school, who made fun of the fact that he was from Ukraine. The boy didn’t stop until Arsen pinched his ear in retaliation. 

After the second and third months, however, things started to get better, he said.

East Rock Record reporters interviewing 12-year old Arsen Kobylianskyi via Zoom in the East Rock School library.

“The teacher is nice, and I started to learn some history,” he said, adding that they were studying the two world wars. Arsen also found friends in class and on his school bus, including two kids from Ukraine. “In the beginning, it was so hard adapting to a new culture,” he said. “But now I feel more comfortable.” 

What does it take to feel comfortable? That is something many people in Connecticut are thinking about.

Kathy Sheppard, the Ukrainian Program Manager for IRIS, which has so far helped settle 450 families from Ukraine, said adjusting to life in America involves a lot of practical problems. 

“A lot of times they just come with the clothes on their backs, sometimes they have a small suitcase, and they have to leave all their things in the country they’re fleeing from. So, when they come here, it’s really important that they get a bit of assistance,” she said during an interview with East Rock Record reporters.

When refugees first arrive, she said, the organization asks them to fill out a questionnaire about whether they have shelter and food. Often these are provided by sponsor families. If not, IRIS helps them fill out applications for government support. After that, IRIS reaches out for check-ins at 30, 60, and 90 days to make sure their living situations are still stable. 

There is also the issue of finding a job and getting healthcare. “To get these services, it’s a lot of paperwork,” said Ms. Sheppard. “That’s challenging for sponsors to learn how to do, and it’s really almost impossible for people who don’t know English to fill out these forms.” 

Refugees also often need help getting to the social security office, figuring out how to get permission to work, get health insurance — all while dealing with culture shock. 

Luckily, Ms. Sheppard said that IRIS has support from many local volunteers. She described two Ukrainian women who wanted to attend English classes but did not have driver’s licenses. Within 24 hours, she said, IRIS had volunteers signed up to drive them, with a schedule to make sure they could get to class consistently. “The community has really come to our rescue.”

Typically, refugees coming to Connecticut are placed in either New Haven or Hartford by the government. As part of a new program, however, Ukrainian refugees have been matched with private citizens in 62 different towns across the state. “So, it takes a village to help our clients,” said Ms. Sheppard, “because they’re all over.”

IRIS has settled Ukrainians throughout Connecticut but works to connect families who might feel isolated.  “We’re always driving around taking things to people, helping them, meeting them in person, or doing little clubs and groups so that they can meet each other — kids can meet kids, teens can meet teens, moms can meet moms — so they don’t feel alone in a place where they struggle learning the language,” she said.

Many students at East Rock Community & Cultural Studies Magnet School want to help. According to the East Rock Record Spring 2023 Survey, about one-third of students know someone who is a refugee. The survey also found that 91 percent of students said they were proud that New Haven is a welcoming place for newcomers from around the world.

Ms. Markus and Rabbi Farbman got involved in helping soon after the invasion of Ukraine. Ms. Markus recognized streets where she had grown up shown on the news, which was “very painful to see,” she said. Both Ms. Markus and Rabbi Farbman feel a personal connection to the war.

Both said that they are still shocked. “We have accepted this as a reality, but we cannot believe or understand that something like this could happen between these two countries. It was as if the United States and Canada went to war with one another,” said Rabbi Farbman. 

Ms. Markus said that the war, “is very complicated, but it’s also very simple. There’s no inherent conflict. Russian and Ukrainian people have nothing to fight over. People are being punished for the will to live their lives how they want.”

Because of their own experiences of leaving home and moving to a new place,” said Ms. Markus, they were eager to help. Their situation was not the same as having to flee, as refugees are now doing. But, she said they could relate to the challenge of having to “find a new home for themselves and establish themselves in a new place.” 

As a result, Ms. Markus got involved right away, building “a collaborative volunteer hub” and coordinating help from Jewish organizations, including in Canada. Because Ms. Markus speaks Ukrainian and Russian, she was able to understand what was needed, interview volunteers and match them with opportunities to help. 

Rabbi Farbman, who speaks Russian, traveled first to Poland and later to Spain. He was one of 30 people who traveled almost immediately, working as a translator at refugee centers. “We could show up and make a difference,” because he could speak the language, he said.

Rabbi Michael Farbman on his trip to Poland and Spain.

Rabbi Farbman also made lists of items people needed. Both he and Ms. Markus have done “a lot of shopping,” buying necessities for refugees. They know that people do need, well, everything: a place to live, clothes, school supplies, furniture, and other basic necessities.

But being a refugee is also hard emotionally. Yes, people need things, said Rabbi Farbman, but it’s also important to reach out, like offering to play a game, or “invite them to a park. It doesn’t have to be anything special. You are creating opportunities that are little, but it gives the sense of normalcy. You can say, ‘Hey a bunch of us are going to the park, and we are going to play a game of soccer or there is a local music festival — do you want to come with us?”

That is something, he said, “that each one of you can do and it goes a long, long way.”

Edited by Jack Delaney