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Welcome Home Jersey City: Providing Resources for Refugees in Hudson County

by Jordan and Joelle Hernandez
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Jersey City is considered one of the most diverse cities in the country, making it a perfect place to welcome individuals and families from around the world. One organization is doing just that. Welcome Home Jersey City is a community-based nonprofit organization that provides educational, employment, and material support for refugees, asylees, and asylum-seekers in the Jersey City area. We had the chance to connect with Alain Mentha, Executive Director of Welcome Home Jersey City, to learn more about the organization and how the community can get involved. Read on to learn more about Welcome Home Jersey City and the incredible work it does locally

Getting Started

Welcome Home Jersey City

(Photo credit: @welcomehomejerseycity)

Welcome Home Jersey City was established in 2017 and was inspired by a photograph. “Many of [the founders] were moved to help refugees by the photograph of Alan Kurdi, a 3-year Syrian boy whose body washed up on the shore in 2015 after drowning in the Mediterranean sea while fleeing with his mother and brother. We felt powerless to change the exodus of civilians fleeing the civil war in Syria, but empowered by the idea of helping those Syrian refugees who had been resettled in our own community,” said Alain. 

welcome home jersey city

^ Moving in a member of the group

(Photo credit: @welcomehomejerseycity)

That photograph, coupled with the increased public focus on immigration issues during the 2016 Presidential election campaigns, and the light in which refugees were placed during this time, the need to support the local resettlement agency felt right to the team. Alain went on to share more about how the organization was born. “Eventually, in 2016, a group of volunteers began coordinating with each other to help set up apartments for new refugee arrivals, and we gave ourselves the name “Welcome Home” at the beginning of 2017.”

Changing Plans

Welcome Home Jersey City

(Photo credit: @welcomehomejerseycity)

As the United States government changed administrations in 2017, so did many of the immigration and refugee policies. Knowing that changes were coming, Welcome Home Jersey City made its mission to settle as many families as possible. Legislative changes caught up with the organization in 2018 when Church World Service’s Reception & Placement contract with the State Department was suspended because there were so few refugees being allowed into the country. 

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Despite new refugees not coming into the country, Welcome Home Jersey City wanted to keep up its work, so the founders shifted gears to create a new plan. “We saw the writing on the wall, and we knew that we had to persevere until refugee resettlement was restored again. We didn’t want to lose our institutional memory. So, we shifted our mission from doing apartment set-ups for new arrivals to working on education and community building,” shared Alain. During this shift, Welcome Home’s Fun Club was created and has been making opportunities for children and families for more than three years.

Fun Club

 Welcome Home Jersey City

(Photo credit: @welcomehomejerseycity)

Multiple studies have shown that regular access and exposure to various extracurricular activities increase academic success, boost self-esteem, improves leadership and time management skills, and have dozens of additional benefits for young students. However, access to these activities is often a struggle in various communities. Recognizing this struggle for relocated families, Welcome Home Jersey City created its Fun Club. Alain shared more about the mission of Fun Club. “It’s actually a sort of bait and needed homemade switch’ by nature of the name,” he joked.

“We actually start with homework help right away, which sometimes does not seem so ‘fun.’” He went on to say, “Fun Club shows [the students] new, fun activities and opportunities, like dance, athletics, music, and crafts, while offering leveled ESL classes to the parents.” Exposing students to a variety of activities creates the ability to learn new skills and create life-long hobbies and interests. In addition to providing the space for activities and learning, Welcome Home Jersey City does its best to remove any barriers that may prevent participation. “To remove the obstacles to participation, we offered transportation to and from the meeting center, childcare [for younger siblings], and dinner,” shared Alain.

More Obstacles

After 18 months of Fun Club, Welcome Home Jersey City had to shift again due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. “When the pandemic hit, we immediately moved as many of our programs as possible online. For a while, we had evening programming on Zoom six days a week,” shared Alain. However, shifting programs to a virtual platform meant that students who did not have access to technology also lost access to the program. Alain and the team had a solution for this. 

“The first thing we did was to make sure that every single one of our school-children had an appropriate device to connect to school. We distributed over 150 Chromebooks, laptops, and tablets.” Alain went on to explain more about the work Welcome Home Jersey City continues to do to ensure students have access to the program. “By the start of September, we will have disbursed nearly $200,000 in funds to families in need, some of whom we’ve connected to through our partnerships with other organizations who work with immigrants.”

The Purpose

While Fun Club does provide students with fun ways to learn and engage with friends while their parents also take courses, the purpose behind this organization runs deep. Alain explained more about the families and their backgrounds. “The families we work with come from all parts of the world, but mostly the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa, particularly Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Nigeria, and neighboring countries in West Africa. We’re beginning to see many more families from Central America.”

He went on to say, “the families who spent years in refugee camps almost need to be rehabilitated after spending so much time in a place where they weren’t allowed to be gainfully employed, a their kids couldn’t attend school. They face enormous hurdles when they arrive, including language barriers, navigating cultural differences, and dealing with trauma. The case management provided by the resettlement agencies is limited, so our organization tries to extend and augment those resources so that families enjoy consistent support for the long term.” 

While Welcome Home Jersey City works to get families acclimated with their new life here in New Jersey, assimilation or loss of culture is never the mission. “The twin missions of the refugee resettlement program are to help refugees become self-reliant but also to become integrated into the community. Fun Club really helps with the aspect that involves integration. It’s not the same as assimilation – we don’t expect our friends to stop speaking their native languages or change their dietary habits or religion or anything like that, but to be able to participate in the civic life of the community and avail themselves of opportunities for themselves and their children,” said Alain.

Moving Forward

Welcome Home Jersey City

(Photo credit: @welcomehomejerseycity)

As the world monitors the return to in-person activities, Welcome Home Jersey City is happy to be able to provide more interactive opportunities for its families. “We are beginning to meet in person again, although we are cautious and very concerned about the Delta variant of Covid-19. So, for now, Fun Club is meeting in Lincoln Park once a week, and we try to exercise the kids physically, and help the moms study for the citizenship exam, which is very exciting.” 

The organization knows that family activity is important as well to build memories and enjoy new experiences together. “We also took two chartered busloads of families to Sandy Hook Beach last month, where many of them experienced the beach and the ocean for the first time in their lives, and later in August we’ll be taking 25 of our members kayaking on the Hudson with Team Wilderness!” 

Alain shared what he hopes for the organization as it starts to move to indoor activities. “When we return indoors, we’ll expect all of our Fun Club participants to be vaccinated, and we look forward to some of our annual events including our Back to School drive in the first week of September, our Winter Coat Drive in October, and our annual Holiday Party,” he shared.

Getting Involved

Welcome Home Jersey City

(Photo credit: @welcomehomejerseycity)

Alain shared that, despite many changes and obstacles, one constant has been the volunteers’ enthusiasm and willingness to help wherever needed. For community members who want to get involved with Welcome Home Jersey City, there are plenty of opportunities. From helping the students with homework and organizing activities to finding career opportunities and collecting or delivering donations, there are options for anyone looking to volunteer.

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To get a better idea of the volunteer needs, click here or email Executive Assistant, Jen Moranchel, at jmoranchel@welcomehomerefugees.org.  Alain also mentioned that Welcome Home Jersey City is looking to partner with additional organizations. 

“We love to hear about new opportunities to partner with other organizations and to promote any initiative that supports the well-being of our community as a whole! We want the best for the whole of Jersey City and our neighbors in Hoboken, Union City, and Bayonne.

Since 2017, Welcome Home Jersey City has offered new opportunities for refugees seeking relocation right here in Hudson County and would love for even more residents to get involved. Learn more about the organization through its site here


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