Zoë Mermelstein is a member of our 2021-2022 DC Service Corps cohort. Prior to becoming a Corps Member, Zoë graduated with honors from Brown University and holds a degree in History & Classics. We asked her to share a bit about her Avodah experience thus far, a few months into the service year.
What made you apply to the Service Corps?
I knew a lot of students at Brown University who had done the Service Corps before me and they all said great things about the community, especially having that post-grad. They all seemed to have had really meaningful experiences through their service work. Most of the students I knew at Brown had served in New York, but I prioritized DC when I applied because it has the largest number of immigration-focused placement organizations. I’m really interested in a career in refugee and immigrant rights.
I wanted direct service experience working with immigrants and refugees at the grassroots level before I went on to law school and will likely be in positions that are less removed from direct service. Avodah’s Service Corps allows me to do that — it puts me in this great juncture, where I am interacting every day with migrants and getting important, first hand experience.
What organization are you serving with this year and what do you do there?
I am a Protection Counselor at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). I am providing direct service to refugees and asylum seekers who need our help. My work is divided into two areas: protection and resettlement. I work on about 30 cases a week, of people who are in our jurisdiction, but there are so many more that are never logged because they are not in our jurisdiction. I probably see 200 of those a week. Those cases are usually people who contact us from outside of the United States asking for help, but UNHCR’s mandate is limited to helping people inside of the U.S. or with a tie here.
With protection, I am usually providing pro se information (representing oneself without an attorney) to either people in detention centers or people who are undocumented and are in asylum proceedings in the United States. I also help get them referrals for lawyers or send them evidence about their country they can present to an immigration judge.
With resettlement, there will usually be someone in the United States, who is a legal permanent resident or a citizen, who contacts their congressperson asking for help getting their loved one resettled to the United States. The congressional office will contact our office to ask for status updates, for us to help put them in touch with the UNHCR office in the other country, or to try and get the case expedited. Then, I contact my colleagues in that country and try to bring the case to their attention.
What’s the most challenging part of your work?
I knew, intellectually, how broken the immigration system was, but this experience has really shown me that firsthand. The system is full of bureaucracy and it’s not client-centered. To see it at the ground level, and attach real people to it who are being affected by these flawed systems, is really tough. It’s really difficult to immigrate into the United States — it’s hard to even know what you’re eligible for. If you figure that out, the reality is that the system doesn’t work well. It’s probably going to be really hard to get in contact with Immigration and Customs Enforcement or the Department of State. It’s challenging trying to navigate that by yourself, let alone as someone who’s in crisis and likely doesn’t speak English.
These processes can take years. More often than not, if we contact another country about resettlement the response is that they are not even in the resettlement pipeline. UNHCR files over 30,000 cases for resettlement consideration per year, but less than 1% of refugees are ever resettled. Some countries, like Pakistan, aren’t even considering resettlement cases right now. It’s challenging to manage expectations with the people we’re trying to help. When someone starts the process, if they get past the first step, they probably feel hopeful. Then, they realize that if anything does happen, it can take a long time.
Why are you passionate about working with refugees and immigrants?
My grandparents were Holocaust survivors and refugees. I was really close with them growing up and they absolutely drive my desire to do refugee work. I have experienced the generational trauma that comes with displacement and crisis. I saw how being raised by refugees affected my father and the way that he learned how to interact, and now it affects the way I interact with him. It’s had a generational ripple effect. You may think you’re helping one person, but that impact can mitigate that ongoing trauma a little bit. That’s something that I remember, that keeps me going.
What’s it like to live communally with other Jewish people?
I love the people I’m living with. It’s been really nice getting to know them and to have a community, post-grad. It’s something a lot of people don’t have when they get their first jobs and are suddenly living in an apartment alone after being on a campus surrounded by thousands of people all the time. I also didn’t belong to any institutional Jewish spaces growing up. The first communal Jewish space I ever belonged to was my university’s Hillel. So, it’s been nice to have this time to figure out what Judaism looks like for me as an adult.
I really enjoy our communal Shabbats. Pretty much every time we do one, someone different leads it. Everybody has the opportunity to lead certain prayers or practices, or to read a song or poem. It’s a lovely time. I also enjoy getting to see everyone’s different Jewish practices. There are some people who have never done Shabbat, who have been experiencing it for the first time, and watching them lean into that has been very meaningful.
What advice do you have for people who are considering applying to the Service Corps?
First of all, the application is long so get to work on that! Seriously though, this is a great opportunity to grow Jewishly, and it’s important you make sure you’re ready for the commitment of living communally. This isn’t the kind of thing you can enter into if you’re just in it because you want a job. We spend a lot of time outside of our jobs, growing as a community, doing programming, and challenging each other.
One other thing I would tell to new Corps Members is to know how to be silly. You know, everyone’s doing really heavy work. Something that’s been really important about the community we have here in DC is that everyone is committed to the work we’re doing, to doing social justice work and direct service, but we also know how to draw boundaries. We know sometimes we just need to be silly and be there for each other. That’s really important.
What’s next for you after Avodah?
I plan to go to law school in the next few years. This year is a great opportunity for me to see what’s going on inside the system domestically, to learn what UNHCR is doing, and to have direct contact with refugees experiencing the process. That way I can be a better advocate in the future, when I am trying to change the system structurally.
Learn more and apply for the 2022-2023 Jewish Service Corps cohort here.