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Pittsburgh Jewish aid group assists refugees of all denominations

| Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012, 9:18 p.m.
Ashok Gurung, 34, came to Pittsburgh three years ago from Bhutan. The Jewish Children and Family Services agency helped Gurung, and other refugees, get settled in the area. Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Ashok Gurung, 34, came to Pittsburgh three years ago from Bhutan. The Jewish Children and Family Services agency helped Gurung, and other refugees, get settled in the area. Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Ashok Gurung, 34, came to Pittsburgh three years ago from Bhutan. The Jewish Children and Family Services agency helped Gurung, and other refugees, get settled in the area. Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review

When Ashok Gurung moved to Pittsburgh three years ago, he'd never seen a microwave oven.

“That seems crazy to many people; maybe even to me now. It's just not something people in our community knew about,” said Gurung, 34, a refugee from Bhutan who lives in Whitehall, about the kitchen device found in 90 percent of U.S. homes.

Gurung, an ethnic Nepali, left school at age 11 to work as a sheepherder. He said soldiers jailed his father and killed some of his friends. He lived in a refugee camp in Bhutan, a landlocked state in the Himalayas, for 17 years. Like several thousand other Bhutanese refugees who came to Pittsburgh, he got help from Jewish Family & Children's Services.

The agency, which offers dozens of programs and services to refugees of any faith, celebrates its 75th anniversary this year.

“They met us right at the airport. They were there. They had lots of courtesy and welcomed us. It was, and still is, a very sentimental moment. Many people here in our community, especially people who are not educated, feel that Jewish Family & Children's Services are their parents,” Gurung said.

Gurung's story is not unlike those of many other people the organization has helped. For much of its history, it has focused on resettling refugees, though its mission is much broader and is financed through donations from individuals, foundations and government grants.

Helping asylum seekers

Formed in 1937 by a merger of several Jewish agencies, the organization first was called the Jewish Social Service Bureau. It became Jewish Family & Children's Services in 1950. During its early years, most of those who sought help were Jewish refugees from Europe both before and after World War II.

“There was a big resettlement of refugees from Eastern Europe. Many of the refugees were orphans,” said Linda Ehrenreich, chief operating officer and director of the organization's career development center.

In the 1950s and '60s as the influx of refugees waned, the agency took on other tasks. It set up services for the elderly in 1958 and the Gusky Child Guidance Clinic in 1964. In that era, the agency became a nonsectarian nonprofit.

In the 1970s, refugees' needs re-emerged. Jewish Family & Children's Services assisted people from Vietnam and embarked on a two-decade project to resettle Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union.

Though refugees come from many countries, they share core issues, said Leslie Aizenman, director of the refugee program.

“These people are stateless. They have been traumatized and persecuted. They have been left in the dark for decade,” she said. “Jewish people have lived this in the past.”

An estimated 70,000 refugees arrive in United States each year. Refugees appealing for asylum may get help from someone like Keith Whitson, who volunteers for Jewish Family & Children's Services' legal assistance program. In the past six years, he has helped asylum seekers from Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Iraq and Honduras.

“These are people who face serious or life-threatening danger in their countries. Some try to represent themselves, which is very hard. I have learned so much from this work and from these people, who have gone through so much and still show such strong character,” said Whitson, one of about five lawyers from the firm of Schnader Harrison Segal and Lewis who volunteers with the agency.

Jobless assistance

The organization has programs for senior care and counseling and operates the only kosher food pantry in Western Pennsylvania.

Nearly three decades ago, it set up a career development center — “an undiscovered gem in Pittsburgh,” said Paul Privett, 65, of Shaler, who lost his job as a surgical instrument salesman in early 2010.

“I was out of work for a year. Part of the difficulty of finding work then was that there were so many people looking for work at that time,” said Privett, who visited the career center 12 to 15 times that year.

The career center began operating around the time Pittsburgh's steel industry collapsed and white-collar workers lost jobs, Ehrenreich said.

“We never start programs unless there is a need for a program,” she said. “Change is the only thing you can count on, and we are constantly changing to meet the needs of our community.”

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at

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