The way Jennifer Silverstone tells it, as a mom and part-time nurse, she was living in a bubble.
“And then one day I was on Facebook and I saw the picture of Alan Kurdi, face down on the beach in Turkey. He was three years old,” said Silverstone, “and my bubble popped.”
The refugee crisis triggered in her a crisis of conscience, Silverstone said. She left her own young children to volunteer at refugee camps in France and Greece. Conditions were crowded, sanitation limited, and women, especially, feared being attacked.
“When I met Syrians in these camps and heard their stories of what they endured, the atrocities that they witnessed,” said Silverstone, “to see them living like this, it was horrifying.”
Silverstone founded a nonprofit based in Carlisle, Mass. called Eyes on Refugees, focused on the less than one percent of refugees worldwide who make it out of the camps and into the U.S. She’s attempting to fill what she calls a gap in services refugees receive and what she believes they deserve.
She points to the example of Heba and Mohamed Alloh, who spent four years in a camp in Jordan after fleeing from their home in Syria. Along with their five children, ages two to 13, they were resettled last summer in Lowell. Silverstone says their apartment was infested with mice, a bathroom from the unit above leaked into a bedroom, and at night while her husband worked, Heba felt unsafe.
“She talks about people knocking on her window, people fighting outside,” said Silverstone. “They finally get chosen by the U.N. to be placed in the U.S. and we bring them here and we put them in squalor again?”
Silverstone’s solution is to connect refugees to a community of volunteers, people who serve as extended family.
“Our job is to help them become self-sufficient,” said Sean Kavanagh, who, along with his wife Donna Vaillancourt, has gone from an empty nest to full house. Three months ago, the Alloh family moved into their in-law apartment.
“Life’s a lot more crazy,” said Vaillancourt, “but we’re feeling a lot more alive.”
The couple is searching for permanent housing for the Alloh family and is helping them navigate everything from the grocery store, to the local schools, to -- in the case of 7-year-old Jaber -- the fundamentals of riding a bike.
Eyes on Refugees has worked with four families, locating permanent housing for two of them. It’s a boutique approach that is working for select families, but would require massive numbers of volunteers to meet the needs of the larger refugee community.
“We don’t have complaints about any group that wants to help a refugee or refugee family,” said Jeff Thielman, president of the International Institute of New England, the agency responsible for resettling refugees in Eastern Massachusetts. “But we’re responsible for providing equitable, quality services to 600-plus people a year.”
Thielman defends his agency’s work, pointing out that within eight months of arriving in the U.S., 80 percent of local refugees take in more money than they spend, meeting the federal government’s definition of sustainability. The agency offers services – from English classes, to job placement, to help getting a driver’s license – for up to five years after arrival.
“You can’t hand people a middle-class life because that’s not reality,” says Thielman. “They’ve got to get the skills to work for it.”
The way Sean Kavanagh and Donna Vaillancourt see it, they’re giving the Alloh family a head start.
“They could have succeeded [if they had stayed in Lowell], but it would have been a harder hill to climb,” said Kavanagh. “My goal is to see each one of those kids, be at their college graduation. That would be great. That would be success.”