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Retirement Party Honors Woman Who Helped Thousands of Refugees

Barbara Nelson worked with immigrants for 23 years for the Jewish Family & Children's Services of the East Bay

Barbara Nelson with Avi Rose at her retirement party on Wednesday night
Barbara Nelson with Avi Rose at her retirement party on Wednesday night
You might describe Barbara Nelson as the Statue of Liberty for the East Bay.

For 23 years, Nelson was the person who greeted immigrants who were fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe, Asia, Central America and South America.

It's fair to say she helped thousands of refugees settle into a new culture and a new home in the United States as director of refugee and immigrant services at the Jewish Family & Children's Services of the East Bay.

"In some way, I felt I was given this amazing role to welcome people," said Nelson.

On Wednesday night, those who worked with her and those she helped threw a retirement party.

More than 100 people came to the Community Center at Heather Farm in Walnut Creek on this cold December evening to give a warm thanks to Nelson.

"She loves doing this. It's not just a job to her," said Natalia Sadetsky, a member of the first family Nelson helped immigrate in her first days on the job in 1990.

"Her personality is one that embraces differences and values people for who they are," added Avi Rose, executive director of the non-profit Jewish family organization.

Nelson was raised in New York and moved to California in the 1970s. She worked in schools, hospitals and as a psychotherapist before she joined the JFCS.

Nelson said the journey began when she volunteered to help a Jewish family fleeing from the Soviet Union.

"It made me very interested in what was happening with refugees from that country," she said.

Nelson started volunteering for the JFCS and was quickly hired. She began as a resettlement coordinator, helping Jewish immigrants from the Russian republic.

"I was interested in being part of people's journey at that stage of their life," she recalled.

Nelson's family immigrated from East Europe a couple generations ago, so the new job seemed like a natural fit.

"I was so connected at such a deep level," she said.

After the Soviet Union broke up and the refugee tide stemmed, Nelson suggested the Jewish organization start helping non-Jewish immigrants from other countries. The group's leaders quickly agreed.

Rose said it seemed natural that a Jewish organization could draw from its culture's history of persecution to sympathize with others in similar situations.

"We felt it could bring out the best of Jewish values," said Rose.

He said Nelson was a major force in the change and eventually took over as the refugee and immigration director.

"It was her vitality, her energy and her commitment that was driving us," he said.

Over the next two decades, Nelson helped refugees from Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iran, Iraq, Cambodia, Central America and South America.

It was more than just dealing with government paperwork. Nelson and her staff helped immigrants find housing and health care. They got them ATM cards and cell phones. They introduced them to others in the community from their native country.

"We felt this was part of our mission to repair the world," said Nelson.

One who remembers it well is Sadetsky. She, her husband and 4-year-old daughter fled the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan in September 1990.

Nelson was the first person they dealt with. They were also Nelson's first client.

Sadetsky said Nelson and her staff arranged everything for them. How much help was Nelson and crew?

"There's no word to describe it," said Sadetsky.

The Sadetsky family first moved to Concord, then to Walnut Creek. Sadetsky got a master's degree and then a doctorate in public health from U.C. Berkeley. She now works for Genentech.

Her husband continues to work in the high-tech industry. Their oldest daughter, now 27, has graduated from U.C. Davis. Their younger daughter, born in 1995, is a freshman in college.

There are hundreds of stories like this from the highlight book of Nelson's career. She said her passion and her background helped her help others.

"My heart is really into it and I had a broad base of experience," said Nelson. "There's something about meeting these people and getting to know them that really spoke to me."

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