Rachel Nusbaum calls herself an “internal journalist.” As a communications specialist for HIAS — formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society — the Long Island native writes blog posts and works with the media.
Nusbaum, 29, writes frequently about on HIAS’s work protecting and advocating for refugees around the globe. We caught up with Nusbaum at the HIAS national headquarters in Silver Spring.
In a blog post, you wrote: “Protecting refugees is part of who we are as Americans.”
When I took this job, I was really excited to be able to join HIAS, an organization that has been doing really great work for a long time. They’re the oldest refugee resettlement organization in the country, and when I told my family I was going to work here, they were all like, “HIAS! Everyone in the Jewish community has a family member or a story about that.”
A beautiful tradition in America has been welcoming refugees, whether they were fleeing the Soviet Union and anti-Semitism or unrest and violence in Vietnam. The fact that we have this reputation — like with the image of the Statue of Liberty — of being a place where you can come and find freedom and you won’t be persecuted for your religion or political beliefs — is especially important. I think it’s a really proud legacy for us.
What have you learned about refugees?
Refugees are incredible. They’re resilient, and they’re strong. Everyone I had a chance to speak [and work] with has been through challenging things that I can’t imagine ever having to go through. Then they’ve turned it around and taken that opportunity and just run with it.
Do you have one subject who really touched you?
I met one young man who’s living in Pennsylvania now, and he was in D.C. for a conference. He is not only in school, but acclimating [well]. He’s also organizing his community, volunteering and tutoring. He is from Nepal, and he is just full of plans.
Your role as a communications specialist makes you HIAS’s spokeswoman in a way.
Yes. My boss likes to describe my position as being like an internal journalist. I get to poke around and talk to people and to explore the whole breadth of the work that we do. I get to talk to so many people. I get to speak to a social counselor in Kenya or somebody who’s working with asylum seekers in Israel.
What is the U.S. process for taking in refugees?
A lot of people don’t know about the vetting process, and they assume that there really isn’t one. Not only is there a vetting process, but there’s an extremely robust, multistaged one that’s so much more intense than one could imagine. People are screened multiple times. They go through many different agencies. They go through the National Counterterrorism Center and through the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department. It’s not the case that people are showing up and we have no idea who they are.
How has the Jewish community responded to the resettlement of refugees?
The Jewish community has been really fabulous for as long as I’ve been here. Jews really are not sitting this one out. We get calls from Jews all over asking, “What can I do to help?” Around the High Holidays, rabbis ask us: “What can we tell people about this refugee crisis?” People really care, and the Jewish community has really stepped up in a big way. And that’s made me really proud that this is the community I come from, and we’re doing something about this.
Anything you would like to share with those who may be skeptical about the resettlement of refugees?
I just think that you should really do onto others what you would want done onto you, as they say. It’s really important to make a place for those who are trying to be resettled. It’s a small group, and it’s a group that really needs that sort of protection.Get to know HIAS; see what we’re doing, and see that there are more ways to make this a more welcoming country again. I think that if we all do something small to help make things better, then it will lead to a big change.