The last couple of years have been tough for Evanston educator and writer Jessica Littmann. She has been disheartened, she said, by "a resurgence of ancient prejudices and hatred" directed toward immigrants and members of minority groups.
"I felt like I didn't have a lot of agency" to effect positive changes in society, said Littmann, a board member at Wilmette's Beth Hillel Bnai Emunah and the 2019 recipient of the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award for
A Corner of the World
, a Jewish-centric novel for young readers.
But when her attorney husband, Alan, successfully tried a refugee asylum case, Littmann was motivated to become more involved in supporting new immigrants. After all, she was acutely aware of her own family's relatively recent traumas, a subject of a November 2022
article ("A parallel bond: Her family survived the Holocaust. Now she's helping a Muslim refugee family start anew in Chicago, including hosting their first Thanksgiving," by Angie Leventis Lourgos).
"We feel a strong imperative to welcome the stranger," said Littmann of her family, which also includes three daughters.
Upon a friend's recommendation, Littmann contacted RefugeeOne, a Chicago resettlement agency, and rallied friends to sponsor a family of Rohingya refugees. The predominantly Muslim Rohingya community has faced mass genocide in Myanmar over the last decade or so, and hundreds of thousands have fled the country, including the Dil Mohamad family, whom the Littmann and her group helped resettle in Chicago.
detailed, Littmann and her family have bonded with the Dil Mohamads since their arrival about eight months ago. Littmann has become particularly close with the matriarch, Nurzan Binti Zahid Hussin, whom she accompanied in the labor-and-delivery room during the birth of her latest child.
Her family history, Littmann said, has heightened her sensitivity to those considered outsiders. She grew up in a small Connecticut town in which hers was the only Jewish family, and she experienced antisemitism at a New England boarding school she attended as a teenager.
But it was the story of her mother's family that has perhaps left the deepest impression on her. As the Tribune recounted, Littmann's maternal grandmother, Marila, was a survivor of the Ravensbrück concentration camp, and her mother, Dorothea, was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany a few years after the war.
Growing up, Littmann said, she heard many war stories, including that of her grandfather, Marila's husband, who was an inmate at the Sachsenhausen camp. Littmann never knew him, because he died in 1958 of a cancer her family believes was precipitated by the horrific medical experiments that the Nazis performed on him during his internment.
The ability to help others who have endured persecution and fled their homelands has been a salve during a very dark time. "It has renewed my faith in the great experiment that is this country," Littmann said.
For their part, the Dil Mohamads have been touched by the Littmanns' warmth and generosity. Speaking through an interpreter, they said, "[The Littmanns] are helpful all the time, and they are helping us a lot."
Also grateful is RefugeeOne social worker Kelli Wendt, who connected the two families. "Jess Littmann and her group have never lost energy," she said, in raising money for the newly arrived family, helping them settle in their new apartment, tutoring them in English and American customs, and making them feel welcome.
Littmann said that working with a refugee family has been "an amazing gratitude practice" for her daughters, who have a renewed appreciation for "the privileges they've been born into."
Felice Weinberg Nelson, a RefugeeOne Board member and volunteer, echoes Littmann's sentiments. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, she became involved with the resettlement agency following her parents' deaths about nine years ago. It has been a healing experience for her and a reminder of immigrants' pluck and perseverance. "I know how agile they have to be," she said, despite "tremendous hardship."
RefugeeOne is part of the Refugee Social Service Consortium providing refugee social services throughout the state of Illinois and administered by Jewish Federation on behalf of the Illinois Department of Human Services. JCFS/HIAS Chicago is also a trusted partner in this important work.
Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in New York.