As Trump policies cut refugees, aid group rethinks mission

New London — Start Fresh volunteers have played a small, but what it considers vital, role in the country’s response to a worldwide refugee crisis over the past three years.

They’ve helped resettle four families in New London: three from Syria and one from Sudan.

But the group of volunteers known as the New London Area Refugee Settlement Team has little to do these days. The flow of refugees into Connecticut and the county, especially from Muslim-majority countries, has declined drastically under the policies enacted by President Donald Trump.

The group is rethinking its mission and asking its volunteers to help steer its course into the future. It is contemplating a move away from resettlement and perhaps to a support role for undocumented immigrants.

Vivian Samos, the president of the Start Fresh board of directors, said refugees are arriving in so few numbers, it could be years before the group sees another family.

The board has told its volunteers they could continue to prepare to host future families, the group could redirect itself to aid undocumented immigrants in the community, or continue in a support role for the existing refugee families.

The board meets again in October to revisit the discussion.

“We’ve had some great discussions to try and figure out whether it makes any sense to have our mission drift a little bit towards helping primarily undocumented immigrants,” she said. “There are other organizations doing this work and we’re not sure what role we might play. Whether or not we’re going to make the switch, I don’t know.”

To date, there has not been an overwhelming response from volunteers about the possibility of shifting to work solely with undocumented immigrants, Samos said. On the other hand, few have called for the group to be disbanded.

Start Fresh is one of several partner groups trained and approved by New Haven-based IRIS, or Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services. IRIS is the largest refugee resettlement agency in the state and welcomed families fleeing conflicts in their home countries that include places like Somalia, Syria and Sudan.

IRIS still is welcoming and resettling refugees but also has been doing work with undocumented immigrants.

IRIS Executive Director Chris George said many of the people aided by IRIS most recently are families of men that worked with U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Once the Taliban finds out who they are, they become targets, he said. The U.S. government has a program to bring them back to the U.S.

He said there is a need for partner agencies for Afghanis and other families from Congo.

Samos said her group resettled an Afghani woman and her three children for a time before the woman moved out to California to stay with her sister. Samos said New London might not have been the best fit for the family.

“There wasn’t a huge cultural context for (Afghanis) in New London," she said.

The Syrian and Sudanese families, on the other hand, have thrived with the help of volunteers and other organization such as New London Adult Education, Samos said. They have learned the language, gone to school, obtained green cards and gotten jobs. Two of the children from one family are now attending college, she said.

Two of the four families still are receiving support from Start Fresh but are mostly independent, Samos said.

George said IRIS is sensitive to a community group’s feeling that they not sure they can give a family the “welcome and services they deserve.” Many Afghanis are coming to Connecticut because they have close friends or families already here, typically in places like New Haven or Hartford, George said.

IRIS, in addition to placing two or three families a month, also is working with undocumented immigrants, asylum-seekers who have crossed the southern border and made their way to Connecticut. IRIS is prepared to aid the families without refugee status while they await things like a hearing before an immigration judge.

“I think it’s terrific that as the number of refugees coming to Connecticut decreases, (Start Fresh) is saying to themselves, ‘Hey, we have the organization and the training from IRIS to help other families with similar needs,'” George said. “We’re definitely going to support that.”

The Trump administration has enacted restrictions on immigration that have included a more stringent vetting process and a travel ban on immigrants from Muslim-majority countries in 2017.

As part of Trump’s push to limit immigration into the U.S., both legal and illegal, he announced a “Public Charge” policy this week that would make it harder for legal immigrants to obtain green cards if they are receiving public taxpayer-funded benefits such as Medicaid, food stamps or housing assistance.

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont condemned the new rule as “cruel” and in a statement said the policy “targets vulnerable immigrant families who are legally pursuing the American dream and forces them to forgo public services in order to stay on the path to citizenship.”

The U.S., which took in a historic low of 22,491 refugees in the 2018 fiscal year, is expected to take in even fewer in the upcoming year. The International Refugee Assistance Project reports that because of enhanced security screenings instituted for refugees from 11 Muslim-majority countries like Syria, the number of refugees fell by 90 percent from 2017 to 2018.

Of those 22,491 refugees, 68 percent were Christian and 15.5 percent Muslim. The top five countries of origin were: Congo, Myanmar, Ukraine, Bhutan and Eritrea. Trump has set a 30,000 cap on refugees in 2019.

George said Connecticut, at a high point in 2016, welcomed more than 1,000 refugees. IRIS took on the placement of 530 of those families. IRIS has aided about 150 families this year, something George called “unfortunate,” considering the worldwide need.

Ron Ward, one of the Start Fresh founders, said his sense is that the group of volunteers remains passionate about its work and he has not heard calls for it to be disbanded.

“I believe people have a right to seek asylum and so while asylum-seekers are here I think we have a civic as well as moral responsibility to see to their needs,” Ward said. “I’m particularly interested in how we can take the case management skills we’ve developed and use these to help coordinate and work with other groups in the community, band together and create a system of supports for those seeking asylum.”

g.smith@theday.com

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