This month, we sat down with Debby Alter (née Aneis) who celebrated her 25th year of service working at JFS Middlesex. Amidst several caseloads of individuals filing for citizenship, green cards and petitions for family members, Debby maintains a level of focus, professionalism and compassion for her work as Accredited Representative and Program Director of JFS Immigration & Citizenship Services.
“I’m a child of immigrants, and I realized how hard it was for my parents to make the adjustments that they needed to make which they didn’t always make completely. Often the children of immigrants have to take on that role [of representative]. So, I wanted to help people in that position because it felt familiar and most rewarding.”
When asked about her longevity with JFS, Debby affirms, “Firstly, I support the mission. And I feel it is very important for a Jewish agency to have a presence in Middlesex County. And as corny as it sounds, I really like being able to help people. I realize now more than ever Immigration is complex…help is needed to help immigrants understand what they are eligible for and the challenges they will face when they are not eligible for immigration benefits.”
Debby started off at JFS as a volunteer, delivering meals to seniors with her friend and children in tow before being hired to help immigrants apply for U.S. citizenship. She became accredited by the Department of Justice in order to fully represent and help immigrants and refugees achieve their immigration goals. She maintains a sense of humor, “What would I be doing if I wasn’t working at JFS? Babysitting. Babysitting my grandchildren.” She quickly recenters and adjusts her response to: “Delivering meals. And I really do feel good about helping people through JSS (Jewish Social Service Committee). I see the situation they are in, and if there is anything we can do to help them I’m really happy to facilitate it.”
Read the full interview below:
Interviewer [I]: What is your favorite memory of your work at JFS?
Debby Alter [DA]: Honestly, my favorite memory is helping the refugees that just came from the former Soviet Union when I first started 25 years ago. They had no knowledge of what the [immigration] process was, or how you become a U.S. citizen, or how much it costs. And I actually went to some of their homes because they had no transportation. I helped them fill out the forms and answer their questions. So that was the most rewarding moment.
[I]: What attracted you to your position at JFS?
[DA]: I’m a child of immigrants, and I realized how hard it was for my parents to make the adjustments that they needed to make which they didn’t always make completely. Often the children of immigrants have to take on that role [of representative]. I really empathize with people coming here. My parents came in their late 30s and 40s, and I realized how hard it was so I wanted to help people in that position because it felt familiar and most rewarding.
[I]: What has been the most challenging experience in your career?
[DA]: I think the most challenging has been balancing my home life and trying to help people here. That is challenging and not always having the proper funding to provide the services and assistance I would like to provide. Another challenge is keeping informed of immigration laws because they are ever-changing depending on the administration. Keeping current with immigration laws is important.
[I]: What keeps you motivated?
[DA]: Firstly, I support the mission. And I feel it is very important for a Jewish agency to have a presence in Middlesex County. And as corny as it sounds, I really like being able to help people. I realize now more than ever Immigration is complex–there were hopes of making adjustments to [policies] and helping people during the Bush administration and we were very hopeful that was going to happen, and it didn’t. The longer that no rules are really in affect for people coming to the U.S., and the challenges they face, and the feelings people have toward immigrants coming in–I feel now more than ever that help is needed to help immigrants, to help people understand what they are eligible for and the challenges they will face when they are not eligible for immigration benefits.
[I]: If you weren’t working at JFS what would you be doing?
[DA]: Babysitting. Babysitting my grandchildren. [laughs] No I would probably go back to delivering meals. I used to do that before being employed here. That’s how I knew the agency. My friend and I delivered meals. We really saved someone’s life one day — and we realized the importance of it, and how much seniors depend on it. We put our babies in the backseat, and delivered meals. We drove in the snow and in all types of weather.
[I]: What wisdom have you learned, or takeaways do you get from your day-to-day interactions?
[DA]: Be kind. It’s very easy to judge but you have to try to give everyone the time and patience that they’re looking for. It’s a challenge, for sure. But I’ve realized that people come in and they are afraid. And they don’t realize we are a safe place. They think we are a government authority–this was especially challenging when helping Russians, or individuals from countries with tense relations with the U.S.; they think anything they say to us will be held against them. But we are here to help. So, I guess, you have to earn people’s trust by listening to them.
[I]: With the stress that comes from your work, how do you take care of yourself?
[DA]: I spend time with people that I enjoy spending time with. Surrounding myself with people who have positive energy. I think that’s really true and important. I love to read. I love to spend time with my grandchildren, honestly, in short doses (laughs). I love them! I enjoy being with my family, having family events and spending the Jewish holidays coming together. I won’t say, cooking, because it tires me out. (laughs).
[I]: What are you most grateful for?
[DA]: Aside from my family, I really do feel good about helping people through my volunteering at JSS (Jewish Social Service Committee). I see the situation they are in, and if there is anything we can do to help them I’m really happy to facilitate it.