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    Friday, May 17, 2024

    New London County readying homes for Afghan refugees

    Members of Start Fresh, a local grassroots refugee resettlement group, from left, Hildy Zeigler, Vivian Samos, Markos Samos, and Sue Rummel, meet at Samos' home in Ledyard on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021 to discuss the group's housing options for refugees. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    On a quiet back road along Rogers Lake in Old Lyme, a stone path leads to a front porch with two wooden rocking chairs and a bright blue front door. In just a few weeks, a family from Afghanistan will step through that door and into their new home after fleeing from the Taliban.

    The house, purchased in 2017 through a partnership among three Old Lyme churches, has been used over and over to provide refuge to folks fleeing war-torn towns, unsafe cities and homes decimated by natural disasters. Families from Syria, the Congo, Puerto Rico and Iraq have lived in the gray three- bedroom house, staying for free as they find jobs, start school, learn English and rebuild their lives.

    "This house is a shelter from which they can try to restart their whole life," said Steve Jungkeit, senior minister of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, one of the churches that helped buy the house.

    "The walls of this home give them shelter, but that's only a part of it, he said. "The volunteers who teach them a new language and drive them to doctor's appointments, the community members who welcome them, they provide a whole other kind of shelter. They all create an atmosphere of healing, support and encouragement, and that's really the best kind of shelter we can provide."

    In October, Jungkeit expects to welcome a new family into the home, likely one from Afghanistan. In August, the Taliban seized most of Afghanistan, forcing many families to flee in fear of their rule.

    "We're ready to go," said Jungkeit, gesturing around the cozy home, furnished with couches, dining tables, televisions, flowers, art and four beds. "The beds are made up and ready, and it won't be long until they're inhabited by a family, presumably refugees from Afghanistan. But we're ready to welcome whoever is in need."

    Refugees and other families needing to be resettled are guided to the Old Lyme house through New Haven-based nonprofit Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, or IRIS, which oversees the resettlement of hundreds of refugees each year. The organization expects to assist at least 300 refugees from Afghanistan by the end of the year.

    Typically, refugees are flown into military bases and then brought to IRIS' New Haven office. The nonprofit then connects with partner organizations throughout the state to resettle those who need homes.

    New London group also prepared 

    Start Fresh is a volunteer-run nonprofit that works with IRIS to help resettle refugees and displaced persons by helping them "start fresh" in New London.

    Vivan Samos of Gales Ferry has been volunteering for at least five years with Start Fresh and serves as vice president of its  board of directors. She said that the organization has welcomed six families: three from Syria, two from Sudan and one from Afghanistan, since its inception in 2016.

    The 31 people in those families have been moved into fully furnished apartments with cupboards stocked with groceries, welcomed with a dinner of food from their culture and greeted by a group of volunteers ready and willing to help enroll children in school, help adults find employment and answer their questions.

    Currently, Start Fresh is preparing to welcome at least two families that are expected to arrive from Afghanistan within the month.

    Start Fresh has rented two homes in New London and is in the process of furnishing the homes to get them ready for their new occupants. The rentals are only temporary, and after six months, they'll have to resettle the families again.

    The organization has been struggling to find affordable housing in the city lately, Samos said. She said they've been met with a lack of availability and climbing rental prices and are looking for help from the community to secure housing they can afford for families in need of resettlement.

    In August, just days after Afghanistan's capital city fell to the Taliban and civilian flights out of the city were mostly halted, IRIS welcomed seven people to New Haven late one night. The family of 6 and a single man came to the U.S. on special immigration visas, or SIVs, which bring the U.S. people who work with the American military in Afghanistan or Iraq and provide them — and their immediate families — with protection.

    The seven refugees have all been settled into their own apartments.

    On IRIS' website, the organization posted a notice that it stands with Afghan families and is ready to welcome those evacuating the country on just 24 hours' notice.

    In New London, Start Fresh said it normally has up to two weeks to prepare for a family's arrival, but next month it may be preparing for a family in half the time, or even in as little as 48 hours. The organization is hoping to help as many families as it can afford to assist this year, but Samos said it is facing new challenges.

    In October, the group expects to receive families coming into the U.S. on an emergency basis after evacuating Afghanistan. Because of the circumstances, the families may not have access to benefits they normally would get, such as SNAP benefits to purchase food, cash assistance, and long-term medical care, Samos said. And they may need legal help to seek asylum.

    "We've never settled families that are coming in as humanitarian evacuees, so there are more unknowns to this group than any other group we've welcomed yet," Samos said. "This is actually a huge leap of faith to even do this because we don't know a lot about it. We knew how to resettle refugees. We've done it for years. But this is a different ballgame and is going to require a lot of creative thinking."

    Samos said Start Fresh doesn't know when the families will be arriving or how many people will be coming. Luckily, it has about 130 volunteers that it can call on when it's crunch time, Samos said, and a support system to lean on in New London.

    Samos said that Start Fresh has a long list of community partners and has already had multiple local businesses reach out with job opportunities in fields such as hospitality and agriculture.

    Old Lyme group also ready  

    Jungkeit said that in Old Lyme, they'll be ready to move a family in "as soon as they get the call."

    "We are fully prepared to receive a family as soon as they arrive," he said Friday while at the house with two volunteers who were setting up dehumidifiers and unpacking household goods.

    The operation, he said, is also entirely run by 60 volunteers, mostly from local churches, who help in whatever way they can.

    The First Congregational Church purchased the home as a response to the Syrian refugee crisis and operates the resettlement program in connection with IRIS and with the partnership of St. Ann's Episcopal Church and Christ the King Catholic Church.

    Jungkeit said that the faith community in Old Lyme recognized a need to offer a safe space to families seeking refuge.

    "We are called to exercise radical hospitality and to open the doors in our community to receive those who are looking to build a better life," he said. "We bought the house with the understanding that we would be resettling refugees in perpetuity. We wanted to continue doing this for years and to use this house as kind of a landing space for people to come and get their feet under them."

    Since 2017, the churches and volunteers have found ways to use the house to help families do just that.

    Cookie Staves, a volunteer who has been helping to resettle refugees for years, said it's been rewarding to watch families she welcomed to Old Lyme find careers, move into new homes and send their kids off to college.

    "You learn so many things from watching the little things that give them joy that we take for granted," she said. "They're just thankful to put their head down at night and know they're going to wake up in the morning."

    Jungkeit said he remembers welcoming a family that was used to a more urban setting into a temporary home in Old Lyme across from a cow pasture. When he apologized for the sound of the cows, he recalls one of the refugees responding, "It's good to hear cows. It's not bombs."

    "This area may appear remote, removed, even dull to us, but to them, they see that there are no bombs falling from the sky," said Jungkeit. "They're coming from these really war-torn areas and to come to a place where they aren't threatened by violence is a really big deal."

    To help these families, Jungkeit said the church is always accepting monetary donations. Since many families leaving Afghanistan will not be authorized to work right away, and may not receive government assistance, the church estimates that they'll need double the funding they typically do to support them. Donations can be made on the church's website, https://fccol.org/, or by check made out to the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme with "refugees" in the notes.

    Samos said Start Fresh is always looking for volunteers, monetary donations to help with housing and other expenses and is currently looking for donated beds with brand new mattresses for the homes they've rented. For more information or to sign up to volunteer, visit startfreshct.org.

    IRIS is asking for help in the form of donations, and volunteers.

    Donations can be made to irisct.org and will go directly to offsetting the costs of purchasing essential items for refugees upon arrival. Director Chris George said in August that many refugees and evacuees come to the U.S. with not much more than the clothes on their back.

    The organization is also asking for collections of items such as backpacks, school supplies, winter coats and waterproof winter boots. Anyone with items to donate can email info@irisct.org.


    Mark Testori, sexton for the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, installs a dehumidifier Friday, Sept. 24, 2021 in a home the church is preparing to house refugees. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    Fully furnished bedrooms shown Friday, Sep. 24, 2021 in the home the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme is preparing to house refugees. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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