Local group contributing to increase in number of refugees settling in Connecticut
New London — A New London-based humanitarian group is contributing to a major spike this year in the number of refugees being welcomed into Connecticut.
Encouraged by the outpouring of support for a Syrian family of seven who settled in New London last month, the New London Area Refugee Settlement Team is in the final stages of preparation for settlement of a six-member Sudanese family.
That family — a mother, father and four children ranging in age from 4 to 13 — was expected to arrive on Thursday, to be met in New Haven by three vans donated by the Jewish Federation.
Like the Kabny family welcomed last month, the family is Muslim and speaks Arabic. The language barrier is one of the first of many obstacles to overcome.
The all-volunteer resettlement group, known locally as Start Fresh, is co-sponsoring the family through New Haven-based Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services.
“What’s happening in Connecticut is phenomenal,” IRIS Executive Director Chris George said in an interview in New London earlier this month.
“Community groups will support refugees," he said. "There is a lot of political and national rhetoric that is critical of the refugee program and is spreading rumors. Community groups, private citizens know better. They believe that this is the best thing this country does. This is our best foreign policy. This is a humanitarian imperative. We need to be involved.”
IRIS experienced an unprecedented jump in the number of groups statewide reaching out to help and co-sponsor families, George said. He was trailing members of a CNN crew working on a piece about Syrian refugees in Connecticut.
George said while IRIS had averaged about three families a year over the past decade, an upward trend started last year when IRIS welcomed 240 individuals. He said the bump is a response to the worldwide refugee crisis and the announced U.S. goal of hosting 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016, part of about 85,000 immigrants entering the country overall.
The goal for IRIS this year is 420 families, about half of which are expected to be Syrian.
Goerge said Connecticut’s increase in settling immigrants has surpassed many other states that do not follow the co-sponsorship model.
“In fact, I have a feeling they feel it is irresponsible to entrust a group of volunteers, amateur do-gooders, to the task,” George said.
“I tell them, 'You guys don’t know what you’re missing.' These groups bring incredible resources to the table. They have professions represented that include real estate, human resources, health care, education ... all of the things refugees need to start their new lives,” he said.
He said the groups such as Start Fresh also know the community and have kids going to the same schools, know where the jobs might be, where to shop and the local bus routes.
“They’re connected and embedded in the community,” he said.
Groups that work with IRIS are independent but are selected, trained and receive advice from IRIS.
Start Fresh Co-leader Ron Ward said the key to the group’s ability to sponsor families is the numerous “highly motivated” volunteers, about 150 in all.
Start Fresh began as a faith-based initiative with the Greater New London Clergy Association but has grown and includes partners such as the local Rotaries, which have been integral to the effort by providing donations and volunteers, he said.
“Everyone is so eager to help. People really want to participate,” Ward said.
On Wednesday, members of the Kabny family sat in classrooms at the New London Adult and Continuing Education facility as part of their ongoing effort to learn the English language.
The older children appear to be adjusting well — Mohammed, the eldest son, introduced himself in English, and Khawla, the eldest daughter, answered some questions in English.
The classes are a collaborative effort from the New London Adult and Continuing Education and volunteers that include Aya Faraj of Mystic, a 21-year-old who immigrated with her family to the U.S. when she was 13. She is entering her final semester at the University of Connecticut, where she will earn a degree in English with plans to teach the language to foreigners.
Also helping are Start Fresh volunteers — Kathy Whealton, a retired English-as-a-second-language teacher and member of the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, and Michel Snitkin, a retired French teacher from East Lyme.
While they don’t know Arabic, they understand the basics of teaching a foreign language.
All Souls has purchased a home for refugees and expects, in collaboration with Start Fresh, to host another family as early as September.
“It’s a major collaborative,” Snitkin said of the overall effort. “It’s so uplifting in the face of so much negativity that we have a positive outreach and really a lot of effort on behalf of a lot of people to make our new Americans feel welcome. This is the marvel of this particular organization.”
Faraj acted as interpreter for the Kabny family during a short interview on Wednesday.
Parents Ahmad and Halima Kabny were both born in Syria but Ahmad left for neighboring Jordan in the late 1980s to find work. They raised their children in Jordan but Halima had been traveling back and forth to Syria with her children until about 2011.
It was during that time that the Arab Spring protests started and eventually led to a civil war and widespread destruction and bloodshed across the country.
When asked about the area in Syria where they are from, both made hand gestures indicating falling bombs while making gunshot noises.
Faraj, the interpreter, said they indicated their home was partially destroyed.
They had plans to return to their native Syria until things just got too volatile. They had applied for refugee status and sought to leave the area in 2012.
Following a series of interviews and reams of paperwork, they were notified by the United Nations in 2015 that they would be going to the United States.
Ahmad said when he learned of the news, his immediate thoughts turned to his kids and hopes for “a better future.”
When he arrived in Connecticut, he said he felt “humanity and peace and safe.”
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