Connecticut advocates reflect on World Refugee Day

University of Connecticut sociology professor Bandana Purkayastha has been studying immigration for nearly two decades, but she became particularly interested in refugees seven or eight years ago.

She has since spoken with about 15 refugees living in Connecticut. She has talked to Bosnian refugees who have been here for 15 to 20 years. She has talked to Bhutanese refugees from Nepal who have been here for six or seven years.

"They struggled mightily but they worked through it," she said. "They were all established in good occupations. Their children were doing remarkably well."

The U.S. has accepted about 3 million refugees since 1980, and there are 68.5 million refugees in the world today, Purkayastha noted. The countries that accept the most refugees are Turkey, Pakistan, Uganda, Jordan and Iran.

"Eighty-five percent of the refugees in the world are actually in developing countries, and they stay in developing countries," she said, "so it's only the other 15 percent that are kind of reaching the developed parts of the world."

These figures come from the Global Trends report the United Nations high commissioner for refugees released on Tuesday, ahead of World Refugee Day on Wednesday.

Many agencies in Connecticut support the various needs of refugees upon their arrival in the state. Representatives from some talked to The Day about the work they're doing, what World Refugee Day means to them, and their alarm at the declining number of refugees being accepted into the country.

"Because of war and violence, they had no choice but to leave, but we just want people to remember that these folks are just like the rest of us, except their homes were uprooted and they were driven away," said Ron Ward, a leader of Start Fresh.

That group's volunteers help refugees understand the American health care system, and tutor adults and children at home to help them learn English.

Ward said Start Fresh has welcomed five refugee families since its inception in February 2016: three from Syria, one from Afghanistan and one from Sudan.

The Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants, based in Bridgeport, resettled 14 refugees between Jan. 1 and May 31 of this year, compared with 42 during the period last year, CEO Claudia Connor said.

She attributes the drop to both the 120-day suspension of the refugee admissions program last year, and to the lowering of refugee limits. President Donald Trump last year lowered the cap from predecessor Barack Obama's level of 110,000 down to 55,000, and this year to 45,000. Connor noted that the country is on track to accept only 22,000 refugees.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on Wednesday, "As global displacement has reached record levels, it is vital that new actors — including governments, international financial institutions, and the private sector — come to the table to assist in the global response to address it."

Connor said most of the refugees resettled through CIRI are from the Democratic Republic of Congo, with a recent increase from Eritrea and Ethiopia.

CIRI held a World Refugee Celebration in Bridgeport on Wednesday, with food made by Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees, soccer games, face-painting and remarks on the "resilience and determination" of refugees.

Mike Doyle, head of the Immigration Advocacy and Support Center, stressed the difference between refugees and asylum seekers.

Refugees are designated as such by the U.N., go through an extensive vetting process and get placed in another country. An asylum seeker would come to the United States and then apply for protection.

IASC helps refugees in Connecticut with legal matters such as obtaining work permits and Social Security cards. The organization also helps refugees complete the paperwork to apply for green cards, which they can do a year after arriving. After five years in the country, they can apply for citizenship.

Other organizations assisting refugees include Catholic Charities and the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut.

In the past, the Jewish Federation resettled close to 400 people in two waves of Jews from the former Soviet Union, and about 20 people from Kosovo, Executive Director Jerry Fischer said. More recently, the organization helped get Start Fresh on its feet and has been providing transportation from New Haven.

Reflecting on World Refugee Day, Fischer said he hopes Americans keep in mind "how lucky and fortunate we are, and we should not pull up the ladder and say, 'We got here; sorry, you can't come in.'"

e.moser@theday.com

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