Writing her next chapter

Franklin Suzanne web image
Suzanne Franklin speaks during the Jewish Federation’s Annual Meeting.

The tale begins in Romania, when a 14-year-old Jewish boy and his 16-year-old brother flee the pogroms and journey to Canada around 1910 - knowing they would never see their parents or their seven siblings again.

A few years later, the 14-year-old boy moves to America, where he marries a young woman. He owns a little antique store where he chronicles the tales of his treasures to prospective buyers, telling them they can only take possession of a particular object after they hear the story of the person to whom it belonged.

Suzanne Franklin, of Lakeview, knows this story well. Growing up in a multigenerational household, she heard it often as a child, sitting on her grandfather's knee as he shared his immigration experiences.

"He was a storyteller," she said. "He helped me become the social worker I am today."

Franklin is the recently retired director of HIAS Chicago, the immigration agency of the Jewish community, which works in close partnership with Jewish Child and Family Services (JCFS). She came to JCFS in 1990, after serving as Coordinator of Mental Health Services for the American Consulate in Jerusalem, Israel, as Executive Director of Orchards Children's Services, a Detroit-based child welfare agency, and as a race relations consultant for Focus Hope, a not-for-profit human rights organization also based in Detroit. She was also a Peace Corps volunteer in Turkey.

"Coming out of the human rights and civil rights era, giving voice to those whose voices are often not heard has been a passion of mine," she said.

She wrote her passion for people into her own narrative, helping feed and water HIAS Chicago during a time of tremendous growth and change in immigration. A short time after she assumed the director position with HIAS, Chicago became the second largest resettlement site for Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union, with nearly 3,300 arriving in that year alone and with the critical support of the Jewish Federation's system of agencies, helped resettle a total of 36,000 from the FSU. 

During the 1970s, HIAS Chicago assisted Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees, and in the 1990s, the organization in partnership with Jewish Federation agencies helped Bosnian Muslims find safety in our community. "HIAS Chicago also has a long history of helping others who come through our doors," Franklin said.

Volunteers continue to play an important role in fulfilling the HIAS Chicago's mission. "Through their commitment to helping new immigrants, volunteers teach citizenship classes and support newcomers in realizing this critical milestone. To date we've assisted more than 19 thousand people in their quest to become U.S. citizens," Franklin said. 

"Attaining U.S. citizenship helps immigrants fully integrate to our community and our country. It also ensures full protection under law and access to a lifeline to basic safety net benefits," she added. Many refugees and immigrants today come to the United States, leaving their families and homelands behind the same way her grandfather did more than 100 years ago, their lives in endangered by religious and cultural persecution, dreaming of a better place to raise their families and live in safety and security.

Last year, HIAS Chicago celebrated its 100th anniversary by creating a Freedom Grove of 100 trees in the Village of Lincolnwood. "Immigrants are like trees. They plant roots, they grow, they flourish and harvest other trees to provide a canopy of shelter for the benefit of all," she said. 

The project also helped raise essential funds for HIAS Chicago and helped connect people to their heritage. "Our goal is that the Freedom Grove will be a learning tool for anybody who walks through it. We hope it encourages people to share their own immigration stories and realize we are a nation built by immigrants and enriched by our common immigrant roots," Franklin said.

"We are the stories we tell. It's important to cultivate those stories culturally and institutionally," she said. As director of Community Services and Program Planning and Development for JCFS, Franklin helped develop The Anthology Project: Connect Through The Power of Story. "This story corps project helps focus our lens on the human beings we impact," she said. These stories help inform our staff, board members and community of the critical services we provide and in particular why we come to work every day."

Now, Franklin will help other organizations learn the value of story. She will teach the art of storytelling at the University of Michigan's Executive Leadership Institute-paying it forward, since she is a member of the ELI Class of 2009.

"Travel with meaning" is also in the plans for Franklin and her husband, Stephen Franklin, a former Chicago Tribune Middle East correspondent who now coordinates ethnic media for the not-for-profit Community Media Workshop, and teaches at University of Illinois and Columbia College. "We'd like to be involved with organizations that go overseas to help others in need," she said.

Franklin will also be designing jewelry, cooking, gardening, and doing photography. "I like things that are peaceful and let me use my hands," she said.

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