Alumni Spotlight: Eytan Deener-Agus Brings a New Lens to Refugee Resettlement Work

Published Mar 14, 2022

Eytan Deener-Agus is a Boston native who participated in our DC Service Corps program in 2020-2021. He now works for Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area (LSSNCA), helping with refugee resettlement. We spoke with him about his Avodah experience and the work he’s doing now, a year later. 

What drew you to Avodah’s Service Corps?

Liat Deener-Chodirker (now Avodah’s Director of Program Operations) is my cousin and had been a Service Corps member a few years before me, so I had been familiar with Avodah for many years. Towards the end of college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do professionally… I knew I liked problem solving, and I knew I liked working within my community, so I started thinking, how could I help problem-solve within communities? Of course, graduating at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic simplified things. With a limited job market, the search became less, “What would set me up for a career in the future?” and more, “What can I do today to make an impact?”

I felt young and healthy, knock on wood, and was ready to get my hands messy. The pandemic exacerbated so many problems, and I knew I wanted to be out working in the street because I was able to. I also wanted to be pushed and be exposed to different people who were thinking deeply about lasting change in the world. Avodah allowed me to do just that, within a Jewish context. 

Where were you placed and what was your role there?

I was on the Assertive Community Treatment team at Pathways to Housing DC, an interdisciplinary team of therapists, social workers, and nurses and then me—a philosophy major! Pathways serves people at the intersection of chronic homelessness and severe mental illness. They were the originator of the housing-first model. Historically, most organizations provided permanent housing only if the client fulfilled certain medical, behavioral, psycho-social requirements. However, Pathways’ model understands that nearly all problems result from clients not having a home, so they flipped the historical model on its head to provide immediate, no-barrier permanent housing and paired it with wrap-around services to promote stability.

Because my team served 80 clients directly in their own homes, I got to travel all across the city—mostly by bike—which was an interesting way to get to know DC, especially when so much of the city was shut down. My job was to show up after the specialty services and support in the implementation of interventions primarily by building relationships with the clients. I would meet clients one-on-one multiple times a week to get to know them, see what they were working on with the rest of the team, help them apply for benefits, and follow up on medical and mental health care they had received. 

How did the pandemic affect your work?

In just the first few months of the year, I lost a team member to Covid. That was devastating and overwhelming for everyone involved. Ms. G had been at Pathways for many years, and all the clients knew her. I was relatively new to the team at that point, so I stepped up so everyone could take the rest of the day off—the work had to continue. That experience shaped much of the rest of the year for my team. 

All of my work was in person, inside of people’s homes, so I had to quarantine four times. Sometimes, I would be in a room with someone for two hours and then, toward the end of the visit, I would notice they were coughing—that meant fourteen days in my bedroom. I finished one round of quarantine on the fourth night of Hanukkah and then was back in quarantine again by the eighth night! I wanted to develop relationships with people, but I would show up to their doorstep with multiple masks and goggles on, so you can imagine it took a lot longer to build trust. 

And then, we entered the vaccination phase. I was super lucky to be one of the first people in D.C. to get vaccinated. I just happened to be on the phone with my family late one night when my brother noticed that D.C. had just released the vaccine, six minutes before our call. As an essential worker, I got vaccinated the next day, which was an amazing feeling. I hadn’t realized how much weight I had been carrying on my shoulders. 

Not everyone was so eager though to get the vaccine. Some of my coworkers were reluctant and many clients were uninterested. There became this new dynamic, a tension that I had to sit with. Leadership even instructed us not to recommend vaccination to clients—we were only allowed to discuss the vaccine if it got brought up. 

After some time dancing around the topic, one client told me, “Enough! I don’t want to talk about this anymore. I have trauma with needles. I swore to God that I wouldn’t use a needle ever again. I am clean, and it’s been a long time now. Give me a pill or whatever, but not a shot.” 

It was eye-opening, to see how everyone has lived very different lives and has had such different relationships to the medical community. We come from different experiences that lead us to make different decisions. However, the honesty allowed the conversations to eventually become more focused on, “How can we help [clients] live a safe life even without the vaccine?”

Direct service work is always emotionally laborious, but it’s been especially hard during the pandemic. What motivated you to keep going?

I felt the urgency of the work. Clients of Pathways to Housing DC are often relegated to the outskirts of our communities, and the loneliness I saw was a whole other pandemic in itself. Just by showing up every day, I saw transformation and recovery in clients. I had to continue. I would sit and draw and listen to music with people, watching the way it unlocked them. It unlocked me, too. We developed relationships. 

There was one client who was always quiet and guarded. He never really opened up about his needs. Instead of discussing medications and benefits, we drew and listened to music together. Toward the end of one visit, he finally told me he had been hungry the whole time. His Social Security benefits had expired months prior, but he hadn’t wanted to tell us because he was embarrassed. It took meeting him where he was at and slowly building trust over time for him to finally start talking about his needs. 

Eytan and his housemates.

And of course, coming home to my peers at Avodah and hearing about their work every day kept me going. There was something really powerful about going through a really hard day but knowing that we all did it together. I couldn’t have sustained that motivation without my housemates. 

How did you end up with LSSNCA? What do you do there?

After Avodah, the perennial question of where to work returned. This time, I felt I had a new lens of self-awareness about my responsibility toward those around me, as well as a new fire beneath me to focus on the urgent needs of those I am most connected to. While I see so many issues abroad, I realized that I can’t demand change out there when I know communities right here are dealing with their own struggles. I wanted to be a part of making change in the communities I’m connected to—my Jewish community, my neighborhood, and the institutions I turn toward.

Coinciding with the end of my Service Corps year, Kabul fell, which began one of the largest immigration waves in modern history. The D.C. Jewish community partnered with LSSNCA because of their direct work resettling Afghan refugees throughout D.C., Virginia, and Maryland. While looking for jobs, I spent my days volunteering with LSSNCA, helping them respond to the overwhelming number of emails from the public. After a couple weeks of volunteering, they hired me part-time. A few weeks after that, they created a full-time position! 

It feels so good to be a part of an organization doing effective, human-centered work. There are people coming to our community with nothing and LSSCNA is finding the resources to help these families build a life. What’s unique about LSSNCA is that community partnerships are baked into their refugee resettlement model, to help open people’s minds and hearts to welcoming newcomers. 

Now, as the Executive Assistant, I get to support the CEO and the executive team with their special projects, acting as an internal consultant to help build the organization’s systems. I am currently working with the team of people thinking strategically at the organizational level—that’s what I like. I’m a systems guy. “What systems can we put in place to make these processes better for these people?” The work is relevant and it’s urgent, and I’m adding value, which is all I can ask for.

How did your Service Corps experience impact your approach to justice work? 

Eytan and several of his fellow Avodah Corps Members.

The conversations I had with my housemates helped shift how I thought about my place in engaging in social justice issues. They helped push me to think locally and at a deeper level. We talked a lot about how everything is connected—that has become a mantra for myself. Seeing all issues as interconnected—homelessness, immigration, health, poverty, wealth, and power disparities—has been very important for me because it also means there are many ways to engage in fixing these issues. 

Avodah also pushed me to think about the unique position of the Jewish community, where we are both deeply harmed by many of these problematic systems while also often benefit from them. We are harmed by white supremacy, systems of valuing profit over people, and wealth hoarding. And yet, we are a part of it. We benefit from it. To be able to admit that, to name it, is a really really important first step. While I’m trying to partner with others to take appropriate action, the ability to name the tension first is definitely something that came out of Avodah—being comfortable with myself enough to name our imperfections and then building community to sustain the long work of creating something better. 

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