Big Hearts in Hard Times

Back in 2015, which today feels like a century ago, when the world was in the midst of another crisis, with millions of refugees sweeping into Europe. I met an amazing young woman.

Her name is Shoshana Akabas.

We were working together to help newly arrived refugee families get their footing in their new homeland. Shoshana was in her early 20s at the time, a grad student at Columbia who was teaching freshman English, and, on top of all of that, was wrestling with chronic health challenges. Despite all of this, she became the backbone of a Good Neighbor Team program, which is small groups of people from churches, synagogues or other community groups, working to support refugees. She mobilized dozens and dozens of volunteers who were able to help dozens of refugee families. Thanks to Shoshana’s organizational genius, we did everything from driving mothers and kids to doctor’s appointments to buying much-needed items for families through Amazon gift lists. But Shoshana didn’t stop there.

Two years ago, she started another initiative matching New York families with slightly older kids who could pass their gently used clothing on to refugee families with kids who were just a little younger. Her hope for the New Neighbors Clothing Partnership: refugee families would get clothing they needed and the sense that someone cared.

As Covid-19 swept through New York, felling thousands with the illness and hundreds of thousands more with layoffs, Shoshana started calling the roughly 100 families in the program to check on them. They were struggling. But something else was happening. Something to make your heart swell with emotion.

Unasked, she learned, donor families had quietly started doing more for their refugee friends. Besides giving clothing, they were sending groceries, diapers, books and games.

The New York Times ran a letter to the editor Shoshana wrote about this organic wellspring of generosity. In that letter, Shoshana described how the mother of a refugee family recently arrived from Afghanistan sensed Shoshana’s worry and sought to reassure her in a text exchange. She said her New York family had sent her supplies and gently encouraged her and her family to stay inside as much possible.

“Don’t worry,” the mother texted Shoshana. “I am happy.”

If you’d like to help, please visit New Neighbors Clothing Partnership.

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