This World Refugee Day, Building a Jewish Home in Central Europe

When Jewish refugees arrive in Prague, their first address might just be Irena Němcová.

By Irena Němcová - Social Worker | June 16, 2023

Irena Němcová (third from left) attends a club for Jewish refugees at the Prague Jewish Community Center (JCC).

Irena Němcová’s job is more than a job –– it’s her way of living her Jewish values. As a social worker in the Prague Jewish community, Němcová’s mission is to help the most vulnerable Jews lead dignified, meaningful lives. And since the Ukraine crisis began, she has helped secure crucial assistance for Jewish refugees. This World Refugee Day, Němcová explains why social work is a key tool for strengthening Jewish life and serving the neediest. 

Irena Němcová

I was born and raised in Brno, a city with a tiny Jewish community of 300 members. In 1989, the Velvet Revolution –– when 41 years of Communist rule in the Czech Republic ended –– took place, and I was a teenager. In addition to these big changes, at 14 I also underwent a personal change: I learned that I had Jewish roots. 

Judaism had been a taboo topic at home before then. During the communist era, people often kept their Jewishness a secret; it was not safe to be Jewish. After the revolution, many opportunities opened up for me –– to participate in programs for teenagers in Israel and in the former Czechoslovakia, to go to synagogue, to learn Hebrew. And thanks to that, I gradually found my way to Jewish life.

Because I like people and wanted to do something meaningful, I studied social work. The fascinating thing about social work is that you can help people change their lives for the better, but also support them when they can’t find an immediate way out of their problems. It’s also work that, each and every day, allows you to fulfill the values so typical of yiddishkeit –– hesedtzedakah, and tikkun olam.

I was lucky, then, to find my professional home here, in the Prague Jewish community. Here in Prague, the Jewish community provides a wide range of social services: a home for the elderly, homecare, as well as social counseling and psychosocial support for all age groups. In addition to our dedicated professionals, many volunteers also help us. 

During the pandemic, the importance of our social programs became obvious. Since then, we have learned to be more flexible, think “outside of the box,” and respond quickly to challenges. All of these skills came in handy when the Ukraine crisis began. 

As soon as the first refugees arrived, the Jewish community jumped into action, ensuring that refugees had shelter, food, clothes, and medicine. Our biggest challenge was to accommodate the large number of newcomers in such a short period of time. Many people from both within and outside of the community offered to help, providing housing, much-needed supplies, and guidance for refugees navigating medical appointments and general bureaucracy.  

Over time, our work shifted from acute crisis-management to refugee integration. Now, we provide refugees with psychosocial counseling, help in accessing social benefits, Czech language courses, housing assistance, jobs, schools and kindergartens, and help securing medical care.

No one knew the crisis would last so long. Most of the refugees thought they would return home after a few weeks or months –– they didn’t think they’d be building a life here. Refugees are often single parents with young children, and their income doesn’t even cover basic expenses. Basically, they need help feeling secure. 

Despite the challenges refugees face, we believe that their arrival is a blessing for our small Jewish community; we are always ready to welcome them into Czech society and make them feel at home in the Jewish community.

And our work is full of beautiful and inspiring stories. I think of Natalia, an elderly woman who came to Prague with her husband, a Holocaust survivor. Natalia immediately enrolled in our Czech language classes. After a few lessons, she told us she wanted to study even more and more quickly. So, she started meeting one-on-one with one of our volunteers for regular Czech conversation. After just a few months, Natalia was making regular trips to the library and reading books in Czech. Now, she’s looking for a job as a language teacher –– her profession before she retired. Natalia’s drive to learn new things and to integrate is inspiring for people of all ages, refugees and locals alike –– and it’s also testament to the effectiveness of our work. 

Refugees often appreciate that, thanks to us, they aren’t alone, but feel a part of a community willing to help them build a home away from home. I’m proud that our community responded so quickly, with some people even opening up with their spare apartments so that refugees could have shelter. I’m also proud of our volunteers, many of whom are still helping to this day. 

But we couldn’t have done this work alone –– we are supported by great partners, like JDC. JDC provides us invaluable financial assistance, enabling us to deliver the highest-quality services and meet the refugees’ needs. Their expertise is equally important, too; JDC brings a wealth of experience delivering social services, and they’ve been our mentor since the crisis began. 

In March, when I attended the 5th Summit of European Jewish Leaders in Berlin, I was again struck by JDC’s commitment to serving the most vulnerable. At the summit, which JDC co-organized, I attended fascinating lectures in the field of social work. But most importantly, I made contacts with social workers from other European countries, many of whom I still speak to and learn from to this day. It was incredibly valuable to see how social services work in Jewish communities across the continent, and I’m grateful to JDC for bringing us together. 

Despite the challenges refugees face, we believe that their arrival is a blessing for our small Jewish community.

Sixteen months into the crisis, my mission remains the same: to help all Jews who need our assistance.  Social work doesn’t just help refugees live a more dignified life, it integrates them into our community, strengthening Jewish life as a whole. 

That’s why this work is sacred to me –– and with JDC at our side, our tent has grown larger for those with nowhere else to turn. 

Irena Němcová studied social work and politics at Charles University in Prague. She currently works as a social worker in the Jewish Community of Prague.

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