‘They have found a sense of safety’ – ORT supporters visit women’s refugee project


ORT’s efforts to assist refugee women in Greece took center stage as a group of supporters travelled to the region to learn more about the impact of our work.

Global citizenship is one of ORT’s three pillars. The International Co-operation (IC) Symposium increased awareness by enabling participants to better understand the wider world and to see how ORT plays an active role in changing lives.

ORT America Board members Suze Goldman and Austin Center were part of the group led by Celeste Angus Gonzales, IC Director. In Bulgaria they were hosted by Plamen Petrov, ORT Bulgaria Director, who provided a tour of the ORT Sofia school and Jewish sites.

The group then traveled to Thessaloniki, Greece, and visited the Irida Women’s Center where women refugees receive psychosocial support and legal assistance, providing them with resources to create a culture of resilience.

Our ongoing partnership with the center was expanded earlier this year to include holistic support for more than 50 Ukrainians. The joint program helps alleviate trauma and displacement they have experienced.

During the visit Suze Goldman said: “The Irida Center exemplifies baruch habaim, welcoming, and Tikkun Olam, repairing the world – the essence of what we believe in as a culture and a religion. These girls, who we have had the privilege of spending a few days with, embody that spirit.”

Two student ambassadors from Bulgaria accompanied the group and learned what “Tikkun Olam” means in practice.

Austin Center gave a workshop with the women called “The Tree of Life” which incorporated hand and footprints that were attached to a tree he had designed. Participants wrote their names in their native language on the bark of the tree. The hand and footprints served as leaves and roots.

“A tree gives us oxygen and helps us breathe, it’s the same as they do here at Irida,” said Austin. “They bring in the women, they need love and kindness and to share a safe space – that’s exactly what they get and this tree of life symbolises that. Everybody was interacting, we had a lively and energetic atmosphere.

“You see all the different names and languages and you see we are united together for something very special. The work here is so valuable and ORT’s IC involvement is really special because it’s truly changing the hearts and minds of people here on the ground.”

Austin Center with the Tree of Life at the Irida Center

The tree will now remain as a permanent exhibition in the center, and as new refugees arrive they will add to the tree to help it grow.

Suze Goldman – a clinical social worker and therapist and professor of psychology – said: “This is a holistic community of healing. In my wildest dreams, there could be no better embodiment of the kind of work we do and envision for people.

“The psycho-social program is extraordinary. It’s very challenging to do verbal work with women speaking seven different languages in the same room.

“We did a psycho-social art session. The theme and project was painting a flower that in some way represents you and describes some of your feelings and who you think you are.

“The women were extraordinarily proud of their work. When women sit together there is conversation and connection. You talk about feelings and who you are and what’s important to you – it’s the embodiment of safety. They have found that sense of safety here at Irida. Thank you to everyone here for what they do every day.”

Austin added: “To be a part of ORT and to travel here and see first-hand the students whose lives we change is truly inspiring.”

During the Sofia leg of the trip, the group heard about the history of ORT’s involvement in the school over the past 20 years and about contemporary Jewish life and experiences for students.

They also met Yoram Elron, Israel’s Ambassador to Bulgaria, during the trip last month.