Community groups are key part of Connecticut refugee effort
NEW LONDON — Chris George is the executive director of the largest refugee resettlement agency in Connecticut. He's also a recruiter.
The leader of the Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services in New Haven spends a lot of his time traveling across Connecticut to talk to community groups about co-sponsoring refugee families. Training such groups as partners, George said, has allowed his agency to double the number of refugees it serves.
The U.S. State Department says IRIS is at the leading edge of a trend that has seen the return of the co-sponsorship model, which was popular with refugee resettlement workers in the 1970s but fell out of favor as dual-income households became the norm and people had less time for volunteerism.
"When you think about all of the things that must be done and goods that must be provided, the more people involved in that effort, the easier it is to consider greater numbers or even a better service or more depth of service," said Barbara Day, the U.S. State Department's domestic resettlement section chief.
George has been invited to attend President Barack Obama's summit on the refugee issue Tuesday and discuss his agency's efforts, including their co-sponsorship work, which now includes 34 different organizations.
"We have devoted a lot of time to outreach, public information, getting the word out and telling the people of Connecticut that there is a need and we are keeping alive this great American tradition symbolized by the Statue of Liberty," George said.
IRIS expects to help resettle almost 500 of the 800 refugees who will come to Connecticut this year, many from Syria.
For many of those refugees, the agency handles most of their immediate needs, from housing to job search assistance to language classes. In the co-sponsorship model, volunteer organizations step up to handle all those refugee services for one or two families.
Start Fresh, a nonprofit group started last November, is one of the several dozen groups that has teamed with the agency. It is a coalition formed by churches and other organizations in southeastern Connecticut, such as the New London Islamic Center.
Cheryl Molina, a co-leader, said her group, like others, was moved by images of a Syrian boy whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey after a boat carrying refugees overturned.
Molina said the group now has about 100 volunteers and since June they have resettled a family from Syria with five children and a family of six from Sudan.
Ezairig El Nemair and his wife, Amna Salim Ali, arrived in New London with their four children on July 27. They had fled their farm in the Nuba mountains of Sudan and lived in Egypt before being approved to come to the United States in 2014.
El Nemair says they were amazed to find Start Fresh had furnished an apartment for them with a refrigerator that was filled with halal food, all labeled in Arabic. Last week the group arranged for him to see a dentist for a tooth extraction.
"All I've felt since I've come here are people of the finest character, quality and personality," he said through a translator. "I feel blessed."
El Nemair and his wife are taking adult education classes in English, while his children have been enrolled in local schools, with the help of Start Fresh. He worked as a clothing salesman in Egypt and hopes to find a similar job here.
"I have always stood on my own two feet and provided for my family," he said. "I have no fear that I will be able to do that here."
Molina said the families have been extremely grateful, warm and eager to learn enough to be on their own and give back.
For each family, they raised about $4,000, which is designed to meet their needs for about four months.
"Every time you walk in the door, there is no way you are getting out of there without them serving you a tray of cookies and a drink," Molina said. "It's been a really great experience, just to get to know them as people."
This story has been corrected to show the woman's name is Amna Salim Ali, not Amna Slaim Ali, and the man's name is Ezairig El Nemair, not Ezairg El Nemair.
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