A Refugee Talks About Her Passion to Help Others

Year after year, the St. Bernard’s Admissions department prides itself on accepting exceptional boys from a wonderfully diverse group of families.  The current year’s crop of new families is no exception.  One of the parents in the kindergarten class, Jane G., had an extraordinary childhood, and she was delighted to tell her story to our Upper School boys.
Jane got the idea to speak to the boys after learning that the St. Bernard’s first annual community book, Refugee by Alan Gratz, had been assigned to the fifth through ninth graders during the summer of 2018.  The book describes three interrelated stories of families that are driven from their homes by war, violence, and unrest.  A former refugee herself, Jane was impressed with the reading assignment and asked Mr. White, head of the Upper School, if she could speak to the boys about her experiences.  He happily accepted her offer.

In 1989 at the age of ten, Jane, her parents, and her brother were living in Moscow, which was then still part of the Soviet Union.  After decades of political and religious persecution, the Soviet government had finally agreed to allow its Jewish citizens to leave the country.  Jane’s family was able to flee with little more than a suitcase per person, and after transiting through Vienna applied for asylum at the U.S. Consulate in Rome, Italy.  Jane remembered the harrowing experience of being uprooted from her home and being in a state of limbo while her family’s application was being considered.  Everyday experiences most Westerners took for granted were difficult for the newcomers to comprehend.  She described being completely overwhelmed the first time she walked into a Viennese grocery store with its endless food options.  Having so many choices in a large building dedicated to consumers was a foreign concept and something to which she and her family could hardly relate. Jane’s family was lucky.  After a relatively short period of ten days in Vienna and two months in Italy, their asylum request was approved by the United States and they were allowed to settle in New York.  Many others were not so fortunate. 

Having had the opportunity to escape certain hardship and to live in freedom, Jane is grateful for the chance she and her family had to start over.  Jane is passionate about giving back and feels a responsibility to help others in need.  She serves on the board of HIAS, the world’s oldest refugee agency, which helped resettle her family in the United States and continues to work around the world to protect refugees who have been forced to flee their homelands.  She is also involved with KIND, a not-for-profit organization that provides free legal services to unaccompanied children who find themselves in U.S. immigration court.

We were delighted to hear and learn from Jane’s extraordinary examples of perseverance and giving back.  The St. Bernard’s community is as strong as ever and it is enriched by Jane’s family, her willingness to broaden the boys’ perspectives, and her inspiration to set a good example for us all to follow.