After only a few months in Los Angeles, Shirley N., a 30-year-old Jewish immigrant from Iran, almost returned to her homeland because of financial difficulties.
"I was down, I was broke, I didn't have anyone here, and I was also worried about my family in Iran," Shirley said. "I would have probably gone back to Iran if it weren't for all the miraculous help of these ladies and SIAMAK."
"These ladies" Shirely refers to are Manigh Youabian and Manizheh Yomtoubian, co-director for the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center's charity outreach.
With a substantial number of affluent and financially successful Persian Jews living in Southern California, it might be hard to believe there are some who live below the poverty line. Yet Youabian and Manizheh and their volunteers encounter this all-too-sad reality every day.
"We help them because no one else does, and we offer them what they cannot receive from welfare; or some don't have any documents in this country but are hungry," said Youabian, who has been volunteering for the past 14 years. Co-director Yomtoubian has volunteered for the last 14 months, and together they help provide food, home furnishings, clothing, transportation, financial assistance and even temporary housing to approximately 100 Persian Jewish families living in poverty in Los Angeles.
The organization provided Shirley with food, clothing, rent money and even a used car to get around, and it also recently granted her a full college scholarship because of her high grades.
"If I wanted to say what they've have done for me, it's beyond words," said Shirley, who is now a student at Santa Monica College and works part-time at Starbucks. "They've helped me financially and emotionally. I don't have anyone here; they've basically been my family."
Originally working with the Iranian American Jewish Association of Southern California (SIAMAK) -- one of the oldest Iranian Jewish organizations in the city, which in February merged with the Eretz Cultural Center in Tarzana -- the group has taken up the monumental task of providing support to Iranian Jews just barely getting by in Los Angeles. With their primary goal to feed hungry Jews locally, the new Eretz-SIAMAK organization subsidizes food expenses for needy families by giving them $50 to $100 worth of coupons per month -- depending on their income -- help from other organizations and assistance from people in their households, Yomtoubian said.
Food coupons are used by many struggling families at Glatt Mart and F&Y Kosher Market in West Los Angeles and at Q-Market in Van Nuys, all kosher markets that have entered into contracts with Eretz-SIAMAK to assist those in need. On a daily basis, the organization is bombarded with desperate phone calls for help from locals who have discovered by word of mouth or by the organization's monthly magazine, Iranian Jewish Chronicle (Chashm Andaaz), of the group's charitable efforts, said Lili Kahen, a volunteer of nine-years.
"People call me at the office here or even at home asking for help because they've lost their job and beg us for one more bag of rice or gallon of oil," Kahen said.
Youabian, who often makes personal deliveries to some of the families' homes, said the organization not only helps local Persian Jews in need but also new Iranian Jewish immigrants struggling to make ends meet in Los Angeles.
"A lot of [Persian Jews] who come here from Iran or Israel have absolutely nothing -- no clothes, no furniture -- and we give them those basic things they need to get by," Youabian said.
For many recipients, it's more than just financial support from the organization: it's the emotional bonds forged.
Elisa P., a 14-year-old resident of the San Fernando Valley, said that Yomtoubian "is so amazing -- not only did she help me get a lawyer for my green card and gave me food coupons, but she's been like a mother figure to me." She said she shares a special relationship with Yomtoubian, who has become a second mother to her after her own mother died in Israel five years ago and her father has been in a coma in an Israeli hospital.
"She really cares about me, let's me into her life, gives me confidence in myself, and that makes me feel special that there's someone who cares," said Elisa, who currently lives with her 75-year-old grandfather.
The two women's charitable work has also motivated younger Jews to volunteer their time locally.
"After I found out that there are Jews in L.A. who don't have food for Shabbat dinner, I was heartbroken," said Eman Esmailzadeh, a 21-year-old Brentwood resident. "It was very simple for me to give back to the community and this was the best way possible." He and six other college and high school Jewish students have volunteered to deliver food parcels to families in need of food on Shabbat throughout the city.
Dariush Fakheri, co-founder of Eretz-SIAMAK, said besides helping poor Iranian Jews locally, his organization has, on numerous occasions, come to the aid of non-Jews by handing out food parcels to the homeless downtown and even donating medicine to Bosnian Muslims during the recent Balkans War.
Having cooperated with the Hope Foundation, Torat Hayim, the Iranian Jewish Federation and SOVA, Yomtoubian said Eretz-SIAMAK would like to collaborate with other local Jewish groups who are aiding poor Jewish families.
Volunteers said their greatest challenge has been overcoming the lack of resources to help everyone who has approached them for help.
"The most difficult part is when we have to put a limit on the help we can offer because we just don't have the money every time to help everyone," Youabian said.