Connecticut groups say they’re ready for more refugees

By ALAINE GRIFFIN
Hartford Courant

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Amid growing debate over the country’s immigration policies in the aftermath of recent terrorist attacks, Connecticut is preparing for a new wave of refugees who will arrive here in 2016.

“There’s been overwhelming support recently from churches, mosques, individuals, people calling saying, `We want to help with the Syrians,’ “ Paula Mann-Agnew, director of programs for Catholic Charities in Hartford, said. Donors are offering money, apartments, furniture and other items as well as asking if they can help refugees complete their immigration paperwork and learn English, she said.

Catholic Charities is among a handful of agencies in Connecticut that work with the domestic resettlement agencies used by the U.S. Department of State’s reception and placement program preparing for the increase, which will include Syrians, considered now to be one of the most vulnerable refugee groups.

“We’ve had to develop a committee just to take in the calls and respond,” Mann-Agnew said. “It’s almost like they see it as a revolution. And they want to be part of it. I think it speaks to the true nature of people.”

In New Haven, calls, packages and checks also have been streaming into Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, more commonly known as IRIS, a nonprofit that helps resettle immigrants and refugees, said Chris George, executive director. He pointed to a stack of envelopes he has accumulated this year from donors_ gifts that were sent even before the agency made its annual appeal for help.

“Community support is 30 times greater than it’s ever been,” George said. Nearly 60 community groups and religious organizations have contacted his office offering to help refugees, many offering to sponsor entire families, he said.

George’s agency is looking to double the number of refugees it plans to resettle in 2016, from 240 to 500. IRIS was thrust into the national spotlight in November when the agency agreed to take in a Syrian couple and their 4 1/2-year-old child after the governor of Indiana said he was opposed to accepting Syrian refugees.

Of the anticipated 500 refugees George said IRIS hopes to resettle next year, about 300 refugees would come from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, about 100 from each country. The remaining refugees, he said, would come from South Sudan, Eritrea and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The United States, George said, has decided to increase its acceptance of refugees from all over the world by about 20 percent, from about 70,000 to 85,000. Of that number, about 10,000 will come from Syria.

David Dearborn, spokesman for the Department of Social Services, said the average number of refugees resettled in Connecticut by the federal government with private agencies is about 500 annually.

For the federal fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2015, 597 refugees were resettled in the state. Just how many refugees will be resettled in 2016 in Connecticut will depend, in part, on the national levels determined by the federal government, Dearborn said.

Recent polls by the Washington Post and ABC News, Bloomberg Politics and NBC News and Survey Monkey all showed that a majority of Americans oppose admitting Syrian refugees into the United States. Among the Republican presidential candidates, Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz have said that Christian refugees from Syria should be allowed into the country. Other Republican candidates have said that no Syrians should be allowed in as refugees. The three Democratic presidential candidates have said they favor accepting Syrian refugees.

Meanwhile, more than two dozen governors_ in contrast to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy _ have asked the federal government to block Syrian refugees from resettling in their states.

“I think that the suspicion of foreign Muslims is higher than it has been in my 10 years resettling refugees,” said George, of IRIS. “There are more questions about Muslims than ever before.”

Mann-Agnew said Catholic Charities was asked recently if it could resettle about 80 more than the roughly 260 refugees it resettled last year, with most coming from Syria and Congo. And that number could climb, she said.

“If we get 80 more, we’ll be ready for 80, if we get 100 more, we’ll be ready for 100,” she said. “We’re prepared to help all that come our way.”

Catholic Charities in Hartford recently purchased a larger storage unit in anticipation of the donations they are expecting to receive and the items they will need to buy if more refugees arrive. “We’ve been getting the word out that we need beds, we need kitchen furniture, chairs,” Mann-Agnew said. “That apartment has to be fully furnished when they arrive.”

Money for the federally funded resettlement services comes from grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Refugee Resettlement.

George said IRIS’s budget last year was about $1.4 million, about $800,000 of which came from the government. Another $600,000 was donated by such private entities as churches, foundations, groups, individuals or raised at events.

George said he expects private donations to spike, money the agency will need if it does double the number of refugees it resettles, George said. The agency is planning to increase its staff and move to a larger facility by February. With those expansions and widespread political and community support, George said his agency is poised to do more.

For most of the refugees arriving in Connecticut, it has taken years to get to the United States, with several rounds of interviews and security screenings, including inquiries about whether they could be considered a refugee in the first place.

To be considered, one has to show that they are unwilling to return to their home country because they have been persecuted there or have evidence that they will be persecuted if they go back. Refugees are persecuted because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or their political opinion.

Resettlement experts said once a refugee is given that status, they are interviewed extensively by officials under contract with the Department of State. Once those interviews are complete, a refugee is interviewed by the Department of Homeland Security and background checks are conducted.

The State Department and Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services approve all refugees for entry into the United States. Once they are approved _ a process that can take years _ they are placed by the State Department with affiliates of national voluntary resettlement agencies nationwide.

In Connecticut, the Department of Social Services contracts with these agencies that then have the task of making sure the refugees are following the resettlement program. Once those checks are cleared, refugees must buy their own plane ticket to the United States, after which they must go through additional security checks so officials can ensure that the people they are interviewing are the same ones that were interviewed overseas.

When refugees arrive in the United States, the resettlement agencies provide them with a culturally appropriate hot meal on their first day in America, some cash, and help them shop for food and other items for their apartment. Then they help them find a job and get medical care as needed.

In a warehouse-like room at the New Haven offices of IRIS one recent morning, refugees and immigrants quietly searched through racks of winter coats and sweaters and piles of boots they’ve been told they will need for their first winter in Connecticut.

“If they’re too big, bring them back and we’ll exchange it,” a volunteer at the organization said to one woman as Jenny Velecela, a case management assistant, wrapped a scarf around her like a hijab, the head covering that many Muslim women wear.

“Look at this. Nice?” Velecela said to a young woman with a baby. The woman, who did not appear to understand English, took the scarf as Velecela gave her the thumbs-up sign.

A woman named Noor, from Syria, filled two plastic bags with clothes for her two small children. She said that after many interviews and security screenings, she was glad to finally be in the United States.

“But I miss my family,” she said.

In an adjoining room, all eyes were on Erika Mendelsohn as she taught what she called “survival English” to a crowded room of refugees and immigrants more familiar with Arabic, Farsi and Pashto.

“Do you remember your address?” Mendelsohn said slowly to one man, who recited his full address back to a smiling Mendelsohn.

Upstairs, two UPS deliverymen dropped off armfuls of packages. “Is this wish list stuff? Oh my gosh.” one woman asked, referring to the Amazon wish list on IRIS’ website that asks donors to consider buying much-needed items for refugees.

It is attention to these kinds of details_ such as whether refugees know enough English to get a job interview or if they have the supplies they need to keep their families comfortable _that help ensure refugees will be able to move beyond the resettlement program and begin a promising life in America.

“When these families get here, they are afraid for the most part,” Mann-Agnew said. “They have not been exposed to a lot. They’ve lived fearful lives. Some of them have been in refugee camps two years, five years, 10 years or even more, so it’s our responsibility to help them get acclimated, to help them get comfortable, to help them get their children in school, to help them get the medical care and mental health counseling for trauma.”

More care these days is in the area of mental health treatment for those who lived through war, torture and fearing for their lives and the lives of their family members while also leaving behind family members and better memories in the homeland that they may never live in again.

“When you’ve lost everything, you’re being persecuted, family members get killed, you want to seek refuge somewhere where you can live free,” Jama Ahmed, assistant director of migration and refugee services for Catholic Charities, said. “Most of the refugees are grateful for what this country offers them. Families are really grateful to be in an environment where they don’t have to be afraid. Some are overwhelmed, but they are glad to be here.”

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Information from: Hartford Courant, http://www.courant.comConnecticut-flag