Head of leading refugee aid group to attend forum in New London

New London — The head of the state’s leading refugee resettlement agency says that despite drastic cuts to the number of refugees entering the country under President Donald Trump, the work to resettle families in New London and across the state will continue.

Chris George, the executive director of New Haven-based Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, known as IRIS, will be in New London this weekend in part to recognize the work of a local community group, Start Fresh, in resettling some of the eight families that now call southeastern Connecticut home.

George will be at the St. James Episcopal Church in New London at noon Sunday for a forum that is free and open to the public. Recognized as a successful national model for resettling families during a worldwide migration crisis, IRIS connects and trains members of community and faith-based groups like Start Fresh to handle the work of locating homes for and aiding families navigating their new country.

“Connecticut has set an example for the rest of the country with this community-based approach. Start Fresh is one of the good examples,” George said.

IRIS has a network of more than 50 such support groups.

George said his visit is in part to recognize Start Fresh but also as an opportunity to reach more people in the local community, raise support and help educate people on the resettlement process and perhaps dispel some myths about the country’s vetting process. George said his presentation will be interactive and include some role-playing with attendants.

St. James Episcopal Pastor Rev. Ranjit Mathews said the church also will welcome the former bishop of Peshawar, Pakistan, Rev. Mano Rumalshah, to the forum. Pakistan is one of the world leaders in welcoming refugees.

Communities in the greater New London area have welcomed eight refugee families over the past several years, and all but one family are Syrian. There are now four families living in New London, one in Ledyard, two in Norwich and one in Old Lyme.

George said Trump has all but shut down the influx of refugees from Syria. Many of the new families entering the country are from Afghanistan. These are families of Afghan men who worked for U.S. military troops as interpreters or in some other capacity, he said.

“Their lives are now threatened by the Taliban and other terrorist groups,” George said. "They’re wonderful families, courageous people who will make great Americans.”

IRIS has a goal of helping 300 refugees — about 60 families — into the state in 2018, down from the more than 500 in 2016. The overall number of refugees entering the country has dropped dramatically. The Trump administration has cut the expected number from 100,000 to 45,000 and George said the entire process is moving so slowly that the real number might even be lower.

The slow progress of bringing in refugees has had a ripple effect on refugee assistance organizations, who are shutting down or laying off staff.

“The administration seems to want to dismantle the refugee resettlement infrastructure and just turn its back on the long tradition in this country symbolized by the Statute of Liberty of welcoming persecuted people,” George said.

Ron Ward, co-leader of Start Fresh, said the local community has been supportive of the group’s efforts and would expect to welcome at least one new family this year. In the event the family is from Afghanistan, Ward said one of the challenges will be finding someone who speaks Farsi to help.

“It’s been a communitywide effort with volunteers coming together to do the work and folks from the community giving financial contributions to aid the families in making new homes,” Ward said. “There is still reason for us to continue our work.”

Ward said the heads of the new refugee families are working, children are in school, several have earned driver’s licenses and many are progressing in learning English.

“We’ve had a history of welcoming immigrants since our founding,” Ward said. “Our community still holds that belief."

Sunday’s forum is free and open to the public.

g.smith@theday.com

If you go

What: Forum on helping refugees resettle in region

When: noon Sunday

Where: St. James Episcopal Church, 76 Federal St., New London

The forum is free and open to the public.

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