New London forum on refugee resettlement features thriving families

New London — While President Donald Trump has aggressively sought to cut the number of refugees coming to America, dozens of residents gathered Sunday to learn more about the resettlement process, as well as celebrate success in Connecticut's refugee resettlement effort.

About 100 people gathered Sunday at St. James Episcopal Church for a meal and forum discussing welcoming refugees to southeastern Connecticut, as well as the vetting process by which refugees come to America.

The forum was sponsored by local community group Start Fresh in collaboration with the church and featured an interactive presentation from Chris George, the head of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, the state's largest resettlement agency, also known as IRIS. George walked the audience through the intense vetting process, which averages about two years, and answered questions from the audience.

While the event was educational, it was also in many ways a celebration of the refugee families — a couple of whom were in attendance and have made a home in southeastern Connecticut — as well as the many volunteers who have helped them get acclimated.

"We are here today just to celebrate and show appreciation for all the work the community has done to make this happen, and to hear how refugees are still being welcomed, despite what we hear in the national media," said Ron Ward, co-leader of Start Fresh. "There's opportunities to continue to be good neighbors and welcome folks and additional families this year to New London."

Organized two years ago, Start Fresh aims to assist refugee families with the everyday needs they may have in adjusting to their new environment. Be it finding an apartment, a job, language learning classes, connecting children to education or simply offering a ride, the group tries to offer the family assistance with the goal that it become fully self-sufficient after a year.

So far there are eight refugee families in the greater New London area, four of which Start Fresh has assisted. Nearly all the families are refugees from Syria, but there's also one from Sudan.

The current political climate and the misconceptions surrounding refugees were a focal point of the forum.

George's presentation walked the audience through the vetting process. From how the U.S. explicitly provides aid to the most vulnerable individuals to the multiple three-hour interviews that refugees go through prior to potential relocation.

He said this process often spans years and includes research by FBI forensic experts in authenticating documents supplied by refugees, as well as an extensive interview by the Department of Homeland Security.

"To suggest that we don't have a vetting process is simply not true, we end up knowing more about this family than we do know about your neighbors," George said. "If you were a bad dude or a bad dudette, hanging out at a café in Kabul sipping sweet tea and planning to go to the U.S. to do some harm, you would not say, 'Let's go to the United States through the State Department's refugee resettling process.' ''

His presentation also addressed how historically the U.S. has been a leader in refugee assistance and advised other countries on the matter, but now he said that place of moral authority and leadership has been jeopardized.

George also tried to clarify the narrative that the amount of money spent on relocating one refugee to the United States could be used to aid 10 people in an overseas refugee camp. George argues that while true, that ignores that those in a camp live in poor conditions.

"This is a life, that is not," he said.

But aside from the forum, one of the biggest highlights of the event was the opportunity to meet and speak with refugee families themselves, such as the Kabny family from Syria.

The family of seven, was the first family from Syria to come to New London when they arrived in June 2016. A year and a half later, the family is thriving.

Mohammad Kabny, is a junior at New London High School and plans to pursue a college degree studying engineering.

Meanwhile Khawla Kabny, 22, the eldest of the five children, told Start Fresh volunteers the first week she arrived that she was going to go to college. Today she is just over a year into her studies at Three Rivers Community College.

She loves biology and plans to become a pharmacist giving back to the community.

"Maybe I can make more medicine," Khawla said. "I can also help people that don't have the money to buy the medicine in my country when I come back."

c.clark@theday.com

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