Ledyard Congregational Church is first in the region to welcome a refugee family

Ledyard — In the coming weeks, the Ledyard Congregational Church will become the first organization in the region to welcome a Syrian refugee family.

The church is one of several in New London County working with Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, a New Haven group that helps resettle refugees across the state.

"It's overwhelming, not in the details or the work that needs to be done but in the sense of a family we haven't met yet ... (they are) getting a chance to come over here and we get a a chance to be a part of that, which is really amazing," said the Rev. Catriona Grant from the church about the family of five, three of whom are school-aged children.

The congregation began working on the sponsorship at the same time as other local faith groups back in October, Grant said. She said the shared experience will hopefully connect the groups further as they each begin to go through the process.

"It's a great opportunity for all of us to have an interfaith experience so we have congregations from synagogues and the mosque and churches involved in that," she said.

Initially the group was worried about the few available and affordable rentals in Ledyard and had expanded their search to other areas. As of Saturday, though, they had found a three-bedroom affordable rental in Ledyard that satisfied their needs.

"It's a huge relief," said Miki Leighton, a Realtor who had been frantically reviewing listings over the past few days. "It takes the pressure off."

The congregation has divided itself into committees to handle the various tasks, including housing and health.

Ledyard is the farthest east the program has placed a family so far, according to Greg Marino, co-sponsorship manager at IRIS.

Marino was on hand for several hours at the church Wednesday afternoon with around a dozen congregants to explain the two fast-paced weeks before the family arrives on May 3.

On the whole, Connecticut has been welcoming to the families IRIS has sponsored so far, Marino said, and the group generally doesn't dwell on people who might oppose their program.

"But we also realize that there are also people in this country (and) at large that don't like what we're doing, and we have to protect our clients," he said.

He explained that the organization recieves very short notice once the refugees are ready to come to the United States. The family is in Turkey, and Marino said they likely crossed the border from Syria somewhere between 18 and 24 months ago.

On May 4, the family will arrive in New Haven and will be picked up by members of the congregation. By that time, the church must have furnished the home and purchased necessities and groceries for the first few weeks, as well as have a meal waiting for them when they arrive, preferably a dish they would be familiar with, Marino said.

When many refugees first arrive, they often face limited options for transportation because Connecticut does not offer the written driving test in Arabic, Marino explained. This can create a bottleneck for the family, but sometimes "that's the motivator: total immersion, lots of studying," he said.

Grant said the church is lining up people to give then rides because during those first few weeks, IRIS and the church will begin scheduling the myriad appointments the family must make, including a series of medical evaluations, registering with Social Security and Husky, Connecticut's public health care plan.

A translator must also be present at many of those meetings. The church has connected with several students at Three Rivers Community College who will interpret. The mother of one student has also offered to cook the first meal, Grant said.

The church has raised $3,000 as part of its efforts to support the family for their first six months, after which the program's goal is for the family to be independent.

Marino will then conduct assessments of their job skills so that the group can focus their job search efforts, often "the biggest priority, and takes up the most time" on the road to self-sufficiency, Marino said.

n.lynch@theday.com

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