Connecticut: Jews, Christians are Main Facilitators of Non-White Invasion


IRIS “resettlement” group asks for twice as many “refugees” as scheduled; Jews are prime movers in effort to bring Syrians to state; Rabbi says “one of the first things you buy them is a television set”

ASHLEY MAKAR no longer has to make cold calls asking congregations to help in the resettling of refugees. (ILLUSTRATION: Rabbi Herb Brockman, one of the leaders of the refugee resettlement project)

“The phone here is hot,” said Chris George, executive director of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, or IRIS, referring to the many calls they have received from people and faith-based institutions offering funds, services and sponsorships to set up families in Connecticut.

IRIS, one of three organizations in the state that deal with refugees, last year brought in some 240 individuals to the Greater New Haven area, finding them apartments, registering their children in school and helping the adults find jobs.

“We are asking the U.S. State Department to send us twice as many, up to 500 individuals,” George said in an interview in his office in the East Rock neighborhood.

In recent years, maybe two or three churches and synagogues would make that commitment to a family and raise the $4,000 needed to subsidize rent and other necessities, including furnishing an apartment, for half a year, after which the families are expected to be independent.

As of last week, some 50 individual organizations had expressed interest in helping and are in various stages of training, with about 20 of them joining together to co-sponsor a family as a way of spreading the day-to-day work among a larger group of participants.

Part of the 50 are seven synagogues stretching from Chester to Cheshire with four in Greater New Haven.

Congregation Mishkan Israel of Hamden, Congregation Beth-El-Keser Israel of New Haven, Congregation B’Nai Jacob of Woodbridge and Temple Emanuel of Greater New Haven, located in Orange, are calling their collaboration the Jewish Community Alliance for Refugee Resettlement.

It is supported by the Jewish Community Relations Council under the direction of Rabbi Josh Ratner, while the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven hired Jean Silk to coordinate the project.

Also, Temple Beth Tikvah in Madison is working with the First Congregational Church of Guilford; Temple Beth David of Cheshire is co-sponsoring with St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in that town, while Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek in Chester is with a coalition from Middletown.

“It really reminds us of what is so great about this program … when the Jewish community steps forward and says we are interested in resettling Syrian refugees. These are people coming from a country whose government has been in a state of war with Israel forever and whose government has done the most it can to demonize Jews. For the Jewish community to say we want to welcome people from this country — it just sends a great message of hospitality and compassion,” George said.

Makar said the Middletown coalition is very diverse with people from churches, synagogues, the NAACP and local government among the sponsors pledging to settle three families this year. George is excited about the possibility of locating refugees in that town, a community he views as akin to New Haven.

While the tradition of welcoming refugees is strongest among religious groups, George said secular groups also are now becoming interested with Connecticut College in New London, Wesleyan University in Middletown and the University of Connecticut in Mansfield in the mix. In Bethel, a group of nonreligious organizations have joined together to resettle a family to Danbury.

The atrocities in Paris in November, when terrorists killed 130 people and injured at least 350, led some organizations across the country to pull back from getting involved.

In Connecticut, however, the outpouring of support that was first triggered in September by the image of a toddler washed up on a beach in Turkey as his Syrian family fled civil war, actually increased here as a counterpoint to the Paris backlash.

“It’s been amazing,” Makar said.

George said Connecticut is one of 20 states led by a governor who is continuing to welcome refugees.

“Connecticut has always been a relatively progressive, cosmopolitan, welcoming state with a long tradition of philanthropy,” George said.

He said for the past decade that he has led IRIS, he found New Haven to be a great place to resettle people displaced from their homes by war, ethnic cleansing and other horrors.

“Even though the rents are high, even though the cost of living is higher here than it is in some states around the country, what we have that other places don’t have is a diverse community that believes in welcoming refugees,” George said.

The executive director said before Paris, the images of people risking their lives to get out of the world’s hotspots, including the 4 million Syrians and the 1 million displaced Iraqis, increased empathy, as did the message of welcoming issued by Pope Francis.

In Connecticut, IRIS was national news when George took in the Syrian family that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence had rejected just after the Paris attack. George said for awhile there he had a stack of gifts sent specifically for that Syrian family of three from across the country, including residents of Indiana embarrassed by Pence’s actions.

“It was very touching,” he said.

Rabbi Ratner of the Jewish Community Relations Council said helping IRIS “is a fabulous opportunity for the Jewish community to step up and get involved in something that is so intricately connected, not only to our heritage, but to our more recent history of being refugees and wishing there had been more people reaching out to us.”

Chris George, the executive director of IRIS, and Ashley Makar, outreach coordinator talk about the Jewish Federation’s commitment to help resettle refugees.
Chris George, the executive director of IRIS, and Ashley Makar, outreach coordinator talk about the Jewish Federation’s commitment to help resettle refugees.

Silk has worked in international education for 40 years, usually taking U.S. students to other countries. She said the volunteers are willing to share their skills, whether that is help with legal or medical problems, in addition to the more routine activities of shopping for food.

Ratner said they know what the commitment means.

“We’ve learned in speaking to people in our alliance involved with IRIS in the recent past is that it is a far more labor-intensive effort than it may initially sound,” Ratner said. “It is a six-month investment, a day-in, day-out investment in this family and everything they may need.”

It appealed to him because it involves more than pushing a donate button for a monetary contribution. “This is leaps and bounds beyond that level of engagement,” he said.

Sydney Perry, the retiring executive director of the Jewish Federation, said this is what she means by “tzedekah,” which in Hebrew goes beyond charity “to doing justice.”

Perry said in the 1990s the federation helped resettle some 350 Jewish refugees to the area when they were allowed to leave the former Soviet Union.

She said her most moving memory was taking them to the grocery store for the first time, and seeing their reaction to the abundance and choice they had in this country, having left a place where food was scarce.

As with any relationship, the personal interaction is the most important.

“There is a lot of socialization that takes place after the apartment is furnished and the refrigerator is filled,” Perry said of getting them enrolled in English classes, driving them to appointments, signing them up for health care and helping them navigate public transportation.

Makar said Rabbi Herb Brockman of Congregation Mishkan Israel has been at the table since IRIS starting planning months ago what to do as the latest refugee crisis sweep Europe.

Brockman said his congregation resettled nine families from the Soviet Union in the 1990s, a Bosnian family in 1995 and an Iraqi Muslim family in 2012.

Watching all the emotional pain of the latest millions on the move, Brockman said he knew they had to get involved again.

In their earlier commitments, he said his congregation partnered with Unitarians and Presbyterians and broke the Ramadan fast with a Muslim family. “Working with other faith traditions, we learned about them and became very close,” Brockman said.

As for the refugees, “we learned about each other as Americans and as families,” he said.

Brockman said this time around they were also motivated by George’s commitment to double the number of people IRIS will process.

Miskan Israel has about 40 volunteers signed up to help, with the congregation starting to raise money in September when Brockman proposed their involvement.

He said one of the first things you buy is a television set as it helps them learn English. The second thing is a donated care to aid them in a job search. One complication is that the driver’s license test is only given in English and Spanish, so they first have to have some competence with the language.

Rabbi Stacy Offner of Temple Beth Tikvah in Madison said they are further along in the process, as the Syrian family of five, with children ages 4, 9 and 10, that they have been assigned, is arriving on Jan. 14. They found an apartment for them in New Haven and are working on furnishing it.

“It is a faith commitment for our synagogue,” Offner said.

She said for those members who had parents, grandparents or great-grandparents who fled persecution themselves “and who are now to be in a position to help others in that situation is deeply meaningful.”

Equally satisfying is that the project involved Christians, Muslims and Jews working together with the same commitment to the family. “It brings us all closer together,” Offner said.

In general, George said they expect to be assigned Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan, Congolese, Eritrean and Sudanese families in 2016 to resettle, but it could also be others.

George said they welcome additional organizations, rather than individuals, to help out, as they can bring more resources and accountability to the task. IRIS will provide ongoing support and they have brought on a case manager that will be a liaison with the groups.

This time around, with the huge increase in co-sponsorships and the likelihood they will be placing some 200 refugees with these co-sponsors, he said they are stepping up the six-hour training sessions, which occur after the congregations complete an assessment of their capacity.

Once they feel they are ready to go, they have to be in a position to accept a family on two weeks notice.

“We are asking them to do things that are kind of within the realm of life skills and experience: finding an apartment, furnishing an apartment; helping someone look for a job. None of these are exotic responsibilities, but it is for refugees who don’t speak English and have never been in this country before,” George said.

“They essentially will do everything that IRIS does,” Makar said, including picking them up at the airport when they arrive and providing a culturally appropriate hot meal that first night.

Since IRIS is serious about immersive English classes, if they are not offered where the refugees end up, the volunteers will have to arrange for tutors, George said.

“We have an early self-sufficiency approach, where we require refugees to work as soon as they possibly can and to begin to cover their expenses,” George said.

Wealthier areas in the state may want to support a family for a year, but IRIS wants consistent policies across the board so they are all treated the same.

“They have to get to work after three or four months,” he said of the refugees, and while it sounds tough, it has proven successful in the past.

George said months ago they knew the potential for congregations to come through for the refugees was there and that many of his colleagues at the other 349 resettlement agencies saw the same thing.

“Why didn’t the U.S. government just say we can double the number of refugees and go from 70,000 to 140,000?” George asked of the national commitment.

Instead they bumped it up 20 percent to 85,000 refugees, with 10,000 from Syria.

Based on the normal proportion sent to Connecticut, the statewide total in 2016, out of the 85,000 total, would be about 550, up from the average 500 in Connecticut, George said.

“We think Connecticut can resettle many more than 550 refugees. If they send us twice as many, that would increase Connecticut by 50 percent,” Makar said, for a total of 750 refugees.

George said the refugee resettlement program is not lavishly funded.

“They have to hit the ground running,” he said of the refugees. Makar said the families take out a loan to cover their airfare, which they then pay back.

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Source: New Haven Register

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