By Felice Gordis
Janice Coles is devoted to the families of the Albany new immigrant community. She is all in for them, becoming a full-time advocate for them and their families.
Jan began her involvement with New York for Syrian Refugees organization (NY4SR) when she met Ilham Almahamid in 2017. As she learned about the kinds of activities Ilham was organizing, Jan knew that helping Syrian immigrants make a new life in Albany was a perfect fit with her natural inclination to roll up her sleeves and jump in when there are people in need. This resonated with a history of extensive volunteer activities in her own family and with her background as the proud granddaughter of immigrants.
And so she retired from a full-time job in public health administration and created a full-time dream position volunteering through the then nascent organization.
Jan began by tutoring a Syrian Mother in English but was soon assigned to a different family, whose many children needed help with English and the local public school system. Not only did she teach English to the family, just as importantly she also worked to help the family connect to the children’s teachers and to help teachers understand how an immigrant parent views school. So, mediating between families and school and modeling behavior for parents, as well as teachers, have been conscious components of Jan’s activities with her families.
Part of this has involved getting children into private schools and extracurricular programs, and in fact the Parker School has designated Jan as a board member and liaison to Syrian refugee families. In addition, Jan is helping adults prepare for the citizenship exam. Another successful adult “informal” educational activity was holding a monthly English language coffee klatch for Syrian mothers. Carefully planned with Mary Kopczynski to develop different vocabulary domains, the coffees also provided an opportunity for the women to talk with the volunteers about their lives and communities in Syria and to compare customs from their home communities with those in Albany.
Another quite different responsibility Jan accepted could itself have been a full-time volunteer assignment. Jan became the administrative head of Syrian Delights, the successful Syrian women’s catering operation in Albany that was becoming a thriving business with an extensive meat, vegetarian as well as vegan menu, until COVID struck. Jan was the business manager and supervisor, arranging licensing, scheduling, and financial operations. She capitalized on the food preparation activities to teach English food and restaurant vocabulary and professional health practices to the women who operated the business.
Jan threw herself into Syrian Delights! She put English signs on everything! She was there when the ladies cooked and when they became vendors at several of the local Farmers Markets, coveted slots which Jan helped to develop with two other volunteers. She basically became a food service professional, except for cooking the food, although if someone was needed to chop onions and mint leaves, she was all in with a knife.
In the summer, Jan learned that a father dreamed of growing his own vegetable garden. Jan immediately took it upon herself to help the family start their own garden in their backyard. She taught parents and children American gardening techniques and used this opportunity to teach them English. They learned how to measure fertilizer and lime, how to mulch; the children learned that worms in the soil are a good sign. She also helped the family create a flower garden. The family was very grateful and ecstatic to be able to harvest their own home-grown produce and enjoy the flower beds.
Anyone visiting the Urgent Refugee Issues Chat knows that whenever there is a request for help finding an apartment, creating educational materials, writing a resume, finding a resource or program useful to the families, Jan is always ready to contribute in a substantial way. She has taken children to Lego robotics clubs, dance and music presentations, soccer games and helped them experience the kinds of activities familiar to children growing up in the US. When certain schools requested that their students wear fabric masks, she got busy sewing and distributed 50 colorful masks. There are also the hours she has invested at DSS to get families the resources to which they are entitled, not to mention help managing medical appointments and communications with medical professionals. She sees helping the families becoming independent and positive forces in their neighborhoods, beyond the boundaries of the refugee community, as an important goal.
In sum, Jan is someone who has had experience with basically every kind of program or activity of the NY4SR organization. So, it is fitting that she is a member of the board. She is someone who has a comprehensive and detailed knowledge of what needs to be done and innovative ideas about how to do them.
From a personal perspective, it has been particularly gratifying to Jan to be welcomed as a member of the extended families of many in the Syrian community. It has also been very meaningful to her that her own family members share her familial connection with the families they have come to know. Jan feels this familial connection with the families has expanded and enriched her own life and extended her own family’s custom of volunteering and welcoming others. That continuity is deeply sustaining.