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Refugee Aid Group Hopeful Its Work Can Continue Under Trump

Alison Freeland
Manal, a widowed refugee from Syria, with the sewing machine she has on loan. She hopes to earn money for herself and her five children by making pillows and curtains.

Refugee resettlement organizations crossed their fingers after this week's election. President-elect Trump has threatened to ban refugees, particularly Muslims. Meanwhile Connecticut uses a unique model that places refugees in individual communities. They would like the model to continue and even grow. The town of Wilton is a good place to see it in action.

A Syrian widow, Manal – who does not want to use her last name – arrived in the town of Wilton last March with her five children. She was given a temporary, modest home and a part-time job in a small manufacturing business. Today she practices English with volunteers so she can take her driver's test.

She forges through the driver's manual: "You come to an intersection which is blocked by whether traffic, you showed, you should…stay out of the intersection until you can pass through." Manal needs a driver’s license in a town with minimal public transportation, and she can’t get a license until she can read English.

The U.S. Government wants refugees to be independent within three to six months. The people in Wilton know just how difficult that is. Ten years ago, Christians, Jews, and Muslims formed the Wilton Interfaith Action Committee. A few years later, they sponsored a refugee family from Iraq. Dr. Hossein Sadeghi says the group learned valuable lessons because it took almost two years for that family to become independent: "It’s like a bird teaching the newly hatched offspring to learn to fly. We cannot just provide everything, spoon feed them, and then suddenly say, ‘As of tomorrow you’re on your own.’" 

This time the group was well prepared with plans to make Manal and her family independent more quickly. Committees were formed and about 100 community members signed up to help with driving, childcare and English lessons. And the group helped Manal decide what trade she wants to pursue. In her living room is a sewing machine on loan. She makes pillows and curtains she hopes to sell.

Steve Hudspeth is chair of the interfaith group. He says the idea is to offer Manal opportunities: "This is not us telling her what she ought to do. It’s her making decisions, seeing how things work. And we, as much as possible, interfacing to make opportunities possible."

This model of commmunity co-sponsorship is championed by Connecticut's Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, or IRIS. The program pairs refugee families with communities in the state. IRIS Executive Director Chris George says many people want to do more than just write a check. "They can actually form a group and welcome a refugee to their community, walk the kids to school, sit down and help somebody practice a job interview, explain why Americans keep dogs in their homes."

Yet George says there are possible downsides to all this good will. "They just want to help these refugee families to death. And drive them everywhere and do everything for them, and it’s no surprise after three or four months, there’s a dependency. We’ve learned those lessons and now we talk openly about it at the training session."

Wilton volunteers understand the problem with intense involvement, but Steve Hudspeth, chair of the Wilton interfaith group, believes the alternative could be worse for these refugees. "Do you want to have a model in which they are segregated, isolated, and not assimilated, or do you want to have a model where they are brought into communities and really made part of those communities? To me the latter model is the one that’s going to work and it will work long term and it will ensure us the best results for the family and for our whole country."

Manal appears to thrive with the community help. She greets the steady stream of visitors to her door with hugs, a large smile, and demitasse cups of strong coffee. She thanks everyone for their help and calls them "not friends, but family."

IRIS so far has settled close to 40 refugee families in Connecticut through these community co-sponsorships. Besides Wilton, towns include Greenwich, Westport, Bloomfield, and New London, and they fear the program could be in jeopardy in the new presidential administration.