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Thursday, August 21, 2014

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JIAS celebrates its 90th anniversary

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JIAS Toronto executive director Janis Roth and author David Bezmozgis. [IsaacImage photo]

TORONTO —  Marking the Jewish Immigrant Aid Services Toronto’s 90th anniversary, author and filmmaker David Bezmozgis spoke at the agency’s annual general meeting about his family’s immigration experience with JIAS Toronto 30 years ago.

Bezmozgis, who is the celebrated author of Natasha and Other Stories and The Free World, and was named one of The New Yorker’s 20 most promising fiction writers under the age of 40, centred his speech around his family’s JIAS Toronto file.

Reading from a copy of his family’s file, which was opened in 1979, Bezmozgis became emotional, choked back tears, and said more to himself than the audience, “I didn’t expect that.”

Bezmozgis, a Latvian who immigrated to Toronto with his parents in 1980 when he was six years old, said that throughout the file, his family was described as “refugees,” and “stateless.”

“It is strange and eerie to see us reduced this way in clerical black and white,” he said.

“It is true? Did this happen? Is this really who we were?”

He said his “need to tell a story about this [immigrant] community, a story that hadn’t been told before,” compelled him to write two books, a number of short stories and a feature film about his experience.

He said that while reading the file, he was struck by “how much in the past it all is.”

Bezmozgis said that today his family is “as far removed from the USSR immigration as the previous generation, the generation of Holocaust survivors, was removed from theirs, when we arrived in Canada in 1980.

“By the time we arrived in Canada, those people had been ensconced in this country for three decades.”

He recalled visiting his parents’ friends who had moved to Toronto about three years earlier.

“I remember being astounded by their fluency with the culture and the language – so much further along than we were. How envious I was of them. How inconceivable it seemed that we would one day attain their ease, the ease that comes with being in a country for a grand total of three years.”

Thirty years later, he added, “here I am, standing before you, recalling those early days.”

He said he also learned details about his parents and grandparents that he’d never known from some of the documents in his family’s JIAS file.

“Many of our parents and grandparents kept no record, no diaries or journals, and much of what documented their lives in the Old Country was left behind,” Bezmozgis said.

“In addition to the great help JIAS provided to three generations of immigrants, it also gives us a rich trove of historical data, data that likely exists no where else.”

Bezmozgis said it’s hard for him to contemplate “an organization that has been so intimately involved in the great dramas of Jewish life over the past 90 years… and not wonder what it’ll look like in another 30 years, let alone 90.”

JIAS Toronto executive director Janis Roth also addressed the agency’s staff, board of directors, volunteers and clients about its accomplishments, developments, challenges and aspirations.

“For the first time since 2003 we have seen our budget slip into the red and all indications are that budgets will get tighter and tighter in the years to come,” Roth began.

She said Citizenship and Immigration Canada is cutting $30 million from its Ontario budget in 2012.

“[But] against this backdrop of budget freezes and cuts, JIAS Toronto had a most remarkable year.”

In addition to the expansion of services, programs and scholarships, JIAS Toronto launched a rebranding campaign.

Roth said JIAS Toronto clients encouraged the staff to share stories of hardships and new beginnings with the community.

“We realized we needed a new face, a fresh start – one that would capture the profile of the immigrants moving here and would reflect the fresh start they were making,” Roth said, adding that changes to their website and information materials now reflect that.

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