Twenty-two years ago, when the Aeroflot jumbo jet rumbled down a Moscow runway and took off bound for California, Lila Katz had only one thing on her mind: getting there — finally.
Two days earlier, Katz and her family were in their seats on a different flight bound for the United States waiting to take off when a flight doctor for the American-owned airline intervened. Concerned that Katz’s ailing mother-in-law would die in transit, the flight doctor had the family kicked off the aircraft.
Lila, her husband, Alex, their two teenage sons, and Alex’s parents watched helplessly as the airplane took off in the middle of the night without them, but with the dozen suitcases that a contained nearly all their earthly possessions.
Stranded in Moscow, more than 1,000 miles north of the home they’d just left behind in Rostov-on-Don (near the border with Ukraine), they checked into a hotel. After three days of scrambling to sell whatever they could — including Lila’s jewelry — they had scraped enough cash together to buy new plane tickets on the Russian-owned airline and, once again, were on their way to a new life in a strange new world.
When they landed in San Francisco an ambulance was waiting for Katz’s mother-in-law, who survived the 15-hour-flight, but just barely. She had terminal cancer, a diagnosis about which the Katzes were fully aware.
"She knew she was dying — she was a doctor, by the way," Lila Katz recalled on a recent drive from downtown Berkeley, Calif. to her office in nearby Walnut Creek. "She was afraid if she died in Russia, we would never had made it [to the States]. So she pulled herself through and brought us here.
"She saw America from an ambulance," Katz continued, more than a little wistfully. Within 10 days of arriving in San Francisco, Katz’s mother-in-law was dead, and the family was trying to figure out how to take out a $7,000 loan to cover her funeral costs.
In Rostov-on-Don, Katz had been a pediatrician for 20 years and her husband was one of the leading gastroenterologists in the region. But as refugees in America, he found himself cleaning pools and working as a gardener, while she scrubbed floors and babysat in order to pay back the loan.
"It was stressful, very, very stressful," Katz said. "But we are happy here. Really happy."
Lila Katz was born in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, in 1947, and reared in a family of doctors.
Her future was preordained: she, too, would become a physician. It was the family business.
But in order to attend medical school, Katz’s parents sent her to the border city of Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia. At the time, Jews were not allowed to attend medical school in Ukraine. No such prohibition existed in Russia.
"If you ask my husband, he will tell you that my parents sent me to Rostov to meet him," Katz says, as a wide, easy smile spreads across her face. Lila and Alex Katz did meet in medical school and were soon married, set up successful practices, and had two sons, Lenny and Eugene.
A Journey Begins
Then on April 26, 1986, Reactor #4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded in the middle of the night. Lila’s parents, who still lived outside of Kiev, fled and joined their daughter’s family in Rostov.
In 1992, when Sam and Michael were 20 and 13, the Katzes received permission to immigrate to the U.S. under the auspices of the 1990 Lautenberg Amendment, which granted refugee status to residents of the former Soviet Union. Later, Katz helped bring her parents and younger sister (also a physician) to settle in the Bay Area as well.
Among those who helped the Katzes acclimate to life in Walnut Creek, Calif. were volunteers from the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay. Founded in 1877 as the Daughters of Israel Relief Society — a volunteer effort focusing on Jewish elderly, widows, and orphans — JFCS-East Bay first became involved in resettlement efforts in 1934 when the first Jewish German refugees arrived in the San Francisco area.
JFCS-East Bay also was instrumental in helping resettle large numbers of Soviet Jews who fled prevailing anti-Semitism in the former U.S.S.R. in the 1980s.
"I started to volunteer [she still pronounces it "wahl-un-teer" in a precisely enunciated, but still-thick accent] very soon after arrival," Lila Katz said. "Both me and my husband. There were a lot of Russians coming at that time and what we did was take them for medical appointments. We helped with medical translation.
"We went to school for English, but to communicate on a medical topic was easy for us," she said. "Sometimes we just explained to people the circumstances of the problem. Even if we couldn’t translate word-for-word, we could help everybody explain. So we were helping with that and then we helped with other stuff. We were very involved in volunteering and our children were as well."
Katz’s husband got a job in a hospital as a medical assistant in a G.I. lab and quickly worked his way up to practicing medicine again. But Lila chose a different route, forgoing pediatrics as a medical doctor and instead becoming certified as a postpartum caregiver. She started her own business, Babes in Arms, helping new parents cope with difficult children.
All the while, Katz continued to volunteer at JFCS, helping new Russian refugees resettle in the East Bay. When the organization got its first grant to fund a refugees and immigrants program, Katz joined the staff in her first paid position, working as a health education and social adjustment counselor.
For many years at JFCS she concentrated almost exclusively on resettlement for refugees. And while the work remained the same, the clientele has changed decidedly, particularly in the last few years as an influx of refugees from Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan began to arrive.
Resettlement for All
In 2004, the Lautenberg Amendment was expanded to include religious minorities fleeing persecution in Iran — Zoroastrians, Christians, Baha’is, and even a few Jews. In the last year or two, many more refugees are arriving with "special visas" issued to Afghani and Iraqi nationals who worked for the U.S. government in their home countries, and most of them are Muslim.
According to Avi Rose, executive director of JFCS-East Bay, the organization has resettled more people in 2014 than it has in a decade. By the end of September, it had resettled 92 refugees. In a typical year, it might resettle 30.
"We projected 60 people to resettle this year and I just signed on for 95 in 2014 with a 10 percent increase on top of that, so it could be up to 100 people by the end of the year," said Amy Weiss, director of refugee and immigrant services for JFCS-East Bay. "It’s not over. We’ve got a lot of work to do. It’s been difficult and fascinating. This group of refugees who are coming primarily from Aghanistan, some from Iraq … it’s like the water faucet has been turned on.
"They’re having to flee," Weiss said. "They are coming from circumstances where they had worked for the U.S. government and they had privilege there and they have to get up and leave with their families, so we have a lot of children that we’re having to serve that we haven’t served before."
JFCS-East Bay has social workers and psychologists on staff who are Muslim, speak Arabic and Farsi, and who were, like Katz, refugees themselves.
"One of the core Jewish values is to help people who need it," Katz said. "Sometimes people ask me, ‘Why would you, a Jewish agency, resettle me? I’m a Muslim from Iraq.’ … As a Jewish agency that resettles a diverse population, I always try to address that."
She tells the story of a young Iraqi man she recently helped settle with his sister, who had been living in the Bay Area for some time. He was suspicious of the agency’s motive for helping him, a Muslim.
Katz said she explained that his sister lived within the geographic area that JFCS serves, and that’s the only reason why he was referred here. The brother and sister began speaking to each other in Arabic, and laughing.
It turns out the man thought that JFCS had somehow discovered that he and his sister have a Jewish ancestor (which, apparently, they do.)
"So we all laughed about that," Katz said. "That’s something I always start with. Then in conversation, I have required topics I need to cover, but I try to do it in a nicer way and sometimes I interrupt with my own stories.
"When they ask something or express concerns, I’ll say something like, ‘I really feel for you and I know what you mean by that. I came the same way. I had kids like you have now. Yes it’s a lot of work.’ … I tell them, ‘I’m here to help. Your relatives are here to help. But you are the one who has to do the job. I can’t do it for you.’ I try to give them a push in the right direction."
Finding a New Freedom
One of the most interesting clients Katz says she’s worked with in the last few years is a refugee from Iraq who arrived with one of those special visas.
The woman had worked as a translator for the U.S. military for five years after the war started in 2003. After the war ended, like so many Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government, she began to receive threats. When her mother and brother were murdered in their car in 2011, she fled to Istanbul, Turkey, where she received that special refugee status because of her U.S. government affiliation. She arrived in the Bay Area in late 2012.
"Her story is really something," Katz begins. "She is not transgender, she is intersex," meaning she was born with both male and female genitalia.
"She identifies as female and she is a beautiful woman. For the second year now she is living with a transgender (female to male) rabbi and his female partner in San Francisco," Katz said. "We have amazing stories."
Many of the more extraordinary stories have come from a very special group of refugees (and asylum seekers) that Katz helped introduce to JFCS after she attended a workshop about four years ago led by a lawyer from ORAM (Organization for Refuge, Asylum, and Migration).
Founded in 2008, ORAM is "the only international organization devoted solely to advocating for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) refugees fleeing brutalization due to sexual orientation or gender identity."
At the time, ORAM was working predominantly with LGBT refugees from Iran who had fled to Turkey. After his presentation, Katz recalls approaching the lawyer to say, "You know, this is something that is a really good fit for us — we’re in the right place — and if anyone can do it, it’s us."
In 2011, JFCS-East Bay received its first LGBT refugee: a gay man from Central Africa who had endured extreme violence in his home country and had to flee for his life. (He continues to live in the U.S. but asked that his name and identifying details about his life not be printed for ongoing security concerns.)
An organization in Nairobi, Kenya that worked with LGBT refugees connected the man with a partner organization in New York that flagged his case for resettlement by JFCS-East Bay. The organization acted as his main sponsor in the United States.
"Lila was behind all of that," the man said in a recent interview.
Volunteers from the LGBT community and JFCS met him at airport when he arrived in San Francisco, and a few days later, he visited the JFCS offices for the first time.
"When I got to the offices, Lila was there," he recalled. "She was loving and kind and had so much compassion for me. She showed me love."
For months, Lila helped this African refugee arrange appointments for medical care, career counseling, school, and helped him navigate a rabbit warren of bureaucratic red tape from applying for his Social Security card to making sure he had a subsidized bus pass. She visited him at his home in Oakland and, eventually, in the office where he found gainful (and meaningful) employment, he said.
"I’m still in touch with Lila," the man said. "She’s a very wonderful, compassionate and friendly person…. She makes you feel like you have someone you can talk to. I had lost everything but she encouraged me. She told me, ‘I was a refugee once, too."
Currently, 78 nations worldwide criminalize same-sex relations; of those, seven may impose the death penalty for consensual same-sex conduct, according to ORAM. In Uganda, for instance, where there has been capital punishment for homosexual activity in the past, homosexuality currently is considered a criminal act punishable by a 14-year prison sentence.
At a recent JFCS-East Bay staff meeting, Weiss, director of refugee and immigrant services, recounted the story of a recent LGBT refugee arrival that brought many staff members to tears.
"One person who I had the honor to pick up at the airport and witness his experience and his mind was blown," Weiss began. "He went from having nothing — nobody to help him, in fear for his life, 23 years old (my daughter’s age) — having to flee barefoot, climb over a fence, escape prison, run for his life, police find him at his cousin’s house, re-arrest him … the story is just incredible. Multiple times fleeing on foot with no money, no water. Being in a refugee camp. Being beat up by a group of Somali men in the refugee camp that was supposed to be his refuge.
"Being physically and of course emotionally traumatized. And then getting on a plane — not knowing where he was going until he’s about to travel and then finding out he’s going to San Francisco," she continued. "On the way to the airport, we had this wonderful Iraqi LGBT volunteer who came five years ago as a refugee himself and he says to me, five minutes before the [new] guy arrives, ‘I’m five years old; I was born when I came down that escalator five years ago and this guy is about to be born.
"And down the escalator comes this jet black African guy who is obviously very gay — in the way you can tell by his escalator ride," she said, drawing knowing laughter from the staff, some of whom are LGBT themselves. "He couldn’t hide it. That’s why his life was in danger. On the way back from the airport, our volunteer says that after we drop him off, he’s going to The Castro, and [the new guy] says, ‘Can I come with you?!’
"It’s really just remarkable to witness his journey from hell to heaven," Weiss said.
The LGBT refugees aren’t the only ones who are transformed by the experience.
"I came from a culture where LGBT was not even spelled out," Katz said. "In my medical school I was taught that it was a kind of psychiatric problem or disorder. For me, this is a big transformation from my background, from my Jewish background."
While Katz was aware of her Jewish origins growing up in the former Soviet Union, she was not religious, didn’t attend synagogue, or celebrate the Jewish holidays. That came much later, when the decision whether and how to express her spiritual identity was hers alone after she arrived in the U.S.
"When we lived in Russia, you didn’t have a choice to buy black shoes or brown shoes. You bought what you could buy," she said. "You have the freedom to be who you are here."
No Day is the Same
In 2014 so far, JFCS-East Bay has helped resettle nine LGBT refugees and Lila Katz has had helped most of them adjust in one way or another. But these days, she’s not usually at the airport for the big moments. She’s back in the office, on her phone and at her computer, doing the decidedly unglamorous task upon which her success is built: paperwork.
"We had an asylee from Cameroon," Katz said. "She was an LGBT activist and worked in the kind of underground LGBT community in Cameroon. A movie producer came and made a documentary about the LGBT community there and … it was shown in L.A. When she was in L.A. [for the premiere] she got news that someone else who was in the film with her was killed in Cameroon. So she decided not to go back and applied for asylum.
"But she left in Cameroon a baby — four or five months old — with her partner, another woman," she said. "She got asylee status. Her partner and baby, when the baby was 9-months-old, came on humanitarian parole. Now they are all legal. The baby inherited the asylee status from her mother, but the other woman had her own case. But now they’re all here. The baby was just baptized."
One recent afternoon, she arrives at her office after having been out all morning at a meeting to find one of her Iranian refugees waiting for her with months worth of paperwork that needs to be completed so she can receive her government subsidy.
The shy young woman is apologetic but there’s no need. Katz is happy to help and swoops into action like a well-oiled, spritely machine. Fifteen minutes later, the woman has her money.
That’s a typical day in the office for her?
"There is no typical day," Katz laughs. "I can have a plan from 9 to 5 every 30 minutes and I walk in and have a voicemail: in one Russian family somebody died. They don’t know where to go or what to do and I need to set up all of that, but then someone will call and say, ‘Thank you for making the appointment for us at the funeral home, but could you come with us because we speak English, but we don’t understand how we will pay, or how to do this or that.’ And then, half or the day I’m out."
Another day might bring a phone call from a young Iraqi LGBT refugee who calls her his "Jewish mother" asking how he should go about disposing of a sofa bed infested with bedbugs, or the flamboyant gay son of one an influential Iraqi family (who arrived as a refugee carrying Luis Vuitton luggage) who calls to tell her about his latest love affair and sometimes puts his new boyfriend on the phone with her so she can check him out.
Katz is 66 now, a self-described "full-time grandmother" to her grandchildren and a full-time life-line to the refugees she serves. She wears many other hats as well, including helping publish a Russian-language Jewish newsletter and ongoing involvement in the life of the Chabad synagogue where she and her (admittedly-more-religious-than-she-is) husband have been members for a decade.
But her social worker work — that, she says, "is the most rewarding work I’ve ever done."
"I came as a refugee," Katz said. "Even though I came from a different country than my clients and for a different reason to come to the United States, I feel very much for these people because my experience as a refugee was not easy and the process of adjustment was not easy.
"I had people in my life who played a role in helping me to succeed, in helping my family to succeed, so I try to play this role with my clients. I even like to let them know that I feel for them because I was in the same shoes that they are in today," she said. "If I can succeed, they can succeed. And if my kids can succeed, their kids can succeed. That’s something that’s driven me to help refugees and to do my everyday job."
On my visit in late September to the JFCS-East Bay offices in Berkeley, I had the opportunity to meet the entire staff of the organization that had gathered the morning I arrived for a quarterly staff meeting. I was able for the first 15-20 minutes I was there to simply observe the staff members (who hadn’t yet learned who I was) as they greeted each other.
You can tell a lot about the way people feel about their job by watching them interact first thing in the morning, before their first cup of coffee. I was taken aback by the authentic care and concern the staff members expressed for each other, and then was bowled over as I heard them individually describe the work they were doing and thank each other for collaborating on this project or that case.
There was a general sense of joyful gratitude in the room. They work hard, but they see how much that hard work matters. They see lives changed, sometimes in an instant. Perhaps more than anything else I witnessed during my time with JFCS and Katz, the subject of my profile, the hugs, smiles, and sincere thanks exchanged by the staffers inspired me.
Lila Katz is a remarkable woman with one of the most wide-open hearts I’ve ever encountered. She arrived herself not that long ago, in the grand scheme of things, as a refugee from Russia and almost immediately began to volunteer at the organization that helped resettle her and her family in Walnut Creek: JFCS.
Now more than 20 years into her tenure at JFCS, her commitment to and enthusiasm for the work she does helping other refugees — no matter what creed, gender, social status, sexual identity, or disposition — appears bottomless.
Hers is a simple but profound ethos: Pay it forward.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, when she was a stranger in a strange land, someone helped her. So she helps others, and does so with a vigor and delight that is contagious.
A version of this story appeared originally on the LifeLines: Stories from the Human Safety Net a project funded by the Journalism Center on Children and Families at the University of Maryland, the National Organization of Social Workers, and the National Organization of Social Workers Foundation.
Cathleen Falsani is an award-winning religion journalist and author of the critically acclaimed The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace, The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers, BELIEBER: Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieber, and the newly released Disquiet Time: A Devotional for Ordinary Skeptics (edited with co-author Jennifer Grant and published by Jericho Books, Oct. 2014.)