Published: Yale Herald BY EVE SNEIDER
At 1:30 a.m. on a warm night last May, Moutoni-Marie Ngaboyishema and her son Fabior Naurellio got off the Metro North at Union Station. The trip took more than a decade.
It began in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Marie lived with her family until eleven years ago when, faced with violence and instability, they fled to neighboring Rwanda. There, ten family members lived out of one tent in a refugee camp for eleven years. After making it through a screening process that often takes two years to complete, Marie, her husband Jean, and two other relatives, James and Anitha, made preparations to come to the United States.
On Apr. 26, 2016, Jean, James, and Anitha arrived in New Haven. There, they were met by members of the Jewish Community Alliance for Refugee Resettlement (JCARR) who would be sponsoring them and facilitating their transition to life in the United States. But Marie and two-year-old Fabior were sent to Indianapolis instead. JCARR was tasked with reuniting the family stateside. On the night of their planned reunion, Jean Silk, coordinator of JCARR, looked forward to a celebration. Instead, she faced a logistical nightmare. She found herself racing around into the wee hours of the morning, calling on anyone who would listen to help her locate Marie and Fabior and deliver them safely to New Haven.
En route, Marie and Fabior made it all the way to New York City before running into trouble. Port Authority bus terminals can be overwhelming even for the American-born and English-speaking, and as soon as they stepped off the bus, the last leg of their journey became—like the rest of their voyage—roundabout. With Marie and Fabior disoriented and scared in the confusion of the terminal, it became an unexpected team effort.
There were the Port Authority police officers who kept an eye on them until an escort from New Haven arrived. One, who introduced himself to them as Officer Collins, even drove them to Grand Central in his police car. Local authorities, passers-by, and JCARR volunteers all played a role in Marie and Fabior’s safe delivery. “Even the security guard at Union Station was excited about their imminent arrival. Exclaiming in awe over the emotions of the moment, he took pictures, shared our tears of joy, gave me his phone number and offered to help JCARR at any time,” Silk recounts. She says that this night, though harrowing for all parties involved, demonstrates what America can offer: “an endless chain of people who went out of their way to ensure [the family was] safe, comfortable, and eventually, reunited.”
Now more than ever, America and Americans are responding to the global refugee crisis. Across the nation, resettlement agencies work to provide those in need with access to that sort of endless chain. In the last year, New Haven in particular has lived up to its name, resettling more refugees than even New York and Los Angeles.
JCARR is a community co-sponsor group, one of fifty in Connecticut trained by and affiliated with New Haven’s Integrated Refugee and Immigration Services (IRIS). IRIS was founded in 1982 as a program of the Episcopal Social Service of the Diocese of Connecticut; today, it is an independent nonprofit that works with two national resettlement agencies, Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM) and the Church World Service (CWS).
Around the country, there are 350 local agencies—among them various faith-based groups, charities, and nonprofits, including IRIS—that are on the ground supporting and working with newly resettled refugee families. Each agency at this level is connected to at least one of nine national voluntary agencies. None of these are public programs, but all nine work closely with the State Department to resettle refugees. The State Department allocates cases, which they then delegate to local organizations.
There are an estimated 20 million refugees worldwide. Just last month, while Yale students were starting the fall term, the U.S. reached its goal of resettling 85,000 refugees in the 2016 fiscal year, of whom 10,000 are Syrian. Around 850 refugees of the 85,000 came to Connecticut, where close to 500 were resettled by IRIS. These numbers are impressive, even shocking, when compared to those of previous years. As recently as 2006, IRIS was resettling only 70 refugees a year. By contrast, they welcomed 68 refugees just last July, including 51 Syrians. In the last year, their resettlement rate has increased by 100 percent.
According to Chris George, the Executive Director of IRIS, these statistics were made possible by increased community interest due to a surge in coverage of the global refugee crisis. At that time, the U.S. State Department and the Department of Homeland Security were sending more people and resources to refugee camps to help with screening, or what George calls “the most rigorous vetting process in the world.”
Once cleared, IRIS receives two weeks’ notice that a refugee family has booked a flight to the United States (usually financed by loans). Its case managers are the first people these families will meet upon getting off a Greyhound bus or Metro North train. These families will come home to New Haven apartments that IRIS has rented and, with the help of donations, furnished. During their first ninety days in the United States, IRIS works under federal guidelines to get each family settled. The kids must be enrolled in school. They must receive a health assessment within thirty days of their arrival. They must get an employment assessment within fourteen.
IRIS provides other services, too. Its modest East Rock office, awash in brightly colored maps and multilingual signage, is the home base to teams dealing with many of the intricacies of newly resettled life. Ashley Makar, outreach coordinator, wrote that “one visitor described [the IRIS offices] as Goodwill meets National Geographic meets the DMV.”
There are daily English lessons. There are citizenship classes. There is the ever-active Employment Services office, which helps new residents build resumes, practice interviews, and find jobs. There’s a women’s group, a food pantry with halal meat, and even wellness sessions. As its storerooms—crammed floor to ceiling with dishware, mattresses, and microwaves—will attest, IRIS has long relied on the support of volunteers (as the organization’s website delicately puts it, it receives only “modest” federal funding). And regardless of the devotion and wherewithal of its staff, there are limits to how many families IRIS can support.
The IRIS office is much like IRIS itself: awe-inspiring in its breadth, but a little concerning by the same token. Laurel McCormack, IRIS’s Acculturation Programs Coordinator, remarks that between green card and naturalization applications, reuniting family members left behind, and handling international travel, the legal team has “more than they can handle.” McCormack herself makes this comment while racing between various classrooms and offices, hugging young mothers in headscarves and laughing with their smiling husbands along the way.
The limitations IRIS faces as a small and minimally funded organization, coupled with an outpouring of community interest and support, led its leadership to revitalize the co-sponsorship model. IRIS defines co-sponsorship as “a shared commitment between IRIS and a community group to help a refugee family resettle in Connecticut and become self-sufficient.” In essence, the co-sponsor group assumes most of the responsibilities an IRIS case manager would normally. A typical co-sponsored family lives outside New Haven, in the same town or community as its co-sponsor group. According to George, “the classic co-sponsorship is that they’re in a separate school district, a separate employment environment, a separate community where they’re being resettled.” In the beginning, the family depends on the volunteers, but gradually they adjust and become self-sufficient. Ideally, “before you know it, the relationship really evolves into one of friendship and just helping your neighbor, not so much financial support,” he says.
This model has been around for years, but it has only recently become a keystone of IRIS’s operations. When George started working at IRIS eleven years ago, the office was moving away from co-sponsorship. “The director, my predecessor, thought it was more trouble than it was worth, that co-sponsors were going off on their own and doing anything they wanted to do,” George said. “She was fed up with it. So I went out and talked to people about it, and I learned that most of the problems were the result of the co-sponsors just not being trained and selected properly.”
As Executive Director, George has worked to revamp co-sponsorship, making it a viable option for refugee families and IRIS alike. Groups who are interested must apply, be vetted, and prove that they fit the circumstances IRIS requires of its community groups. It is not a quick or simple process. One question from the “Housing” section of IRIS’s co-sponsor application reads as follows:
a. Identify 2-3 neighborhoods in your vicinity where there are affordable apartments (2 bedrooms for about $1,000/month; and 3 bedrooms for about $1,400/mo; or less)
N.B. Please find housing outside of New Haven City Limits, unless most of your group is based in New Haven. And please research both 2br and 3br apartments.
b. What are the names of these neighborhoods? Please describe them, especially in terms of safety (check crime records), general upkeep, number of abandoned homes, and diversity.
c. Talk to a few people in these neighborhoods (residents walking down the street, people working in local businesses.) Ask them how safe they feel and how welcoming the neighborhood is. Ask how they would feel about having refugees from the Middle East and Africa as neighbors. Jot down some of their responses.
d. Familiarize yourself with the rental market in these neighborhoods. Talk to landlords. Ask: Would you be willing to rent to a refugee family? Would you consider a 6-month lease? Jot down some of their responses.
e. If the landlord requires a co-signer on the lease, would your group co-sign?
N.B. do not make any rental commitment until you are assured of the arrival of the family (by IRIS –– we usually get 2 weeks notice or less from our national affiliates.)
Beyond location, there is the question of funding (can your group raise between $4,000 and $10,000, or enough to provide three to six months of assistance?) and that of language (do you have access to a translator? what about English classes for adult speakers of other languages?). Above all, the group must be, as George puts it, “large and strong.”
Once approved, the co-sponsor must work its way through IRIS’s 43-page co-sponsor manual and attend training sessions with case managers before arrangements are made to pair it with a family. Often, it’s the minutia of case managers’ own experiences that proves most helpful to groups in training. Advice can be as simple as, say, reminding co-sponsors to bring water and snacks when they go to meet their family late at night when they first arrive. If a Connecticut Limo is dropping a family in New Haven, but their co-sponsor group is from all the way out in Danbury, little details like pretzels will ensure a smooth and easy last leg of the long, taxing trip. This, too, is a crucial element of the job of co-sponsors. Beyond logistical assistance, they aim to provide a community and facilitate a comfortable transition once a family arrives in America.
From 2012-2014, IRIS worked with two or three co-sponsor groups each year. In the 2016 fiscal year, this figure rose to fifty. The explosive surge in community interest and support led George and his team to take a risk and tell Washington to send them twice as many refugees in 2016, the same year President Obama vowed to increase the number of refugees taken in by the United States by 15,000. It was a huge decision. But, George jokes, “at one point, before the State Department agreed to send us any more refugees, I was saying in a kind of strange, joking way, saying we might not have enough refugees to go around and satisfy the need of these community groups.”
As it turns out, he had nothing to worry about. Of the 500 refugees resettled by IRIS in the last year, more than 200 were placed with co-sponsors.
Silk describes the decision to form a co-sponsor group as a kind of “swooping together.” It began at a meeting last fall. IRIS, inundated with phone calls from people looking to help amid the Syrian refugee crisis, arranged an information session for interested groups and volunteers. As Silk put it, “I looked around the room and I knew all the Jews!” Given the monumentality of a co-sponsor’s responsibilities, they decided to band together.
Silk, who had just been laid off from her job in cross-cultural education at Yale, was “looking for a new challenge.” Following the info session at IRIS, she spoke to the head of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven about stepping up to spearhead a new Jewish Community Alliance, a job for which she is paid “really a tiny bit of money.” Five congregations in the greater New Haven area hopped on board, along with the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Federation, and then the application process could begin.
This process of forming coalitions of groups is something IRIS encourages, according to Liese Klein, IRIS’s Development and Communications Director (those involved with outreach at IRIS are accustomed to playing matchmaker). JCARR is one of many co-sponsors that started as several different groups. As the leader, Silk brought together members of these separate communities. In particular, she worked to create different task forces to deal with various aspects of resettlement.
“Our Housing Team finds an apartment; our Household Team furnishes, supplies, and sets up the apartment; our Welcome Team meets them upon arrival, shows them around their home, tells them how things like the stove and shower work, and provides a warm, culturally appropriate meal for their first evening,” Silk explains. And then there is the Education Team, the Healthcare Team, the Transportation Team, the Finance Team. JCARR even has a Cultural Orientation Team to “help them learn all the essentials to living daily life in our culture, from grocery shopping and banking to watching fireworks on the Fourth of July to going swimming in the summer.” And the Odd Jobs Network helps family members practice skills that will improve their employment prospects. Recently, they cleaned up graves at a local Jewish cemetery.
As evidenced by the number of task forces alone that Silk has set up, she understands the importance of volunteers. She has come to see who is reliable and will do what they say, and has settled on a trusted team of close to thirty active community members from a long list of 130 volunteers. And the level of community engagement has inspired her time and time again. “The day we were moving furniture into the apartment,” Silk recalls, “I counted at one moment 25 volunteers in the house including some children, even a little boy scrubbing the bathtub, and it was emotional beyond my expectations just to see what a group of people can do.”
The co-sponsor group through Yale’s own Saint Thomas More (STM) boasts similar numbers. Jenn Schaaf, an assistant chaplain, explains that while the core team is technically comprised of twenty community members and three STM staff members, there are more than seventy people on their volunteer list, and more than 100 people who have donated funds or supplies.
And yet, one of the trickiest parts of co-sponsorship is realizing that at a certain point it shouldn’t take a village anymore. Part of the definition of co-sponsorship is helping a family become independent. As Silk sees it, while a volunteer feels the urge to do as much as possible for the family, “that’s dealing more with our needs than theirs.” For example, it took JCARR volunteers two months of driving the family everywhere to realize that in the long run this was counter-productive. “We turned our attention to accompanying them on the bus until they became confident about using public transportation to get where they need to go,” she said.
Silk describes JCARR’s current phase as, “we’ll help you if you ask us for help.” The goal with all co-sponsor groups is that eventually resettled families will go from being dependents to simply being community members, even friends. Both Silk and Schaaf were quick to point out how much they have enjoyed learning from and about their families’ backgrounds. And looking forward, there is hope that these families will help the ones that follow. According to Silk, JCARR has plans to resettle three families a year, one at a time. “I could see [our current family] helping with grocery shopping or adult education,” she notes.
Across the nation, it is mostly churches that use the community co-sponsor model. JCARR and STM alike cite religious reasons in their decision to become co-sponsors. For Jenn Schaaf, Pope Francis’ request that Catholics take in refugees was a major contributing factor. For Jean Silk, it was the Jewish tenets of tzedakah, or giving back to the poor as an act of justice, and tikkun olam, which means world repair.
Religious groups have been a major proponent in refugee resettlement in Connecticut. “When I give a talk at a church or a synagogue, some of the older people in the congregation will say, ‘I remember when we resettled a family from Southeast Asia.’ Or, in a synagogue they’ll say, ‘Yes, we resettled Soviet Jews who fled persecution from the former USSR,’” George remarks. Both Klein and George explain that while they encourage any sort of community group to get involved in co-sponsorship—as George put it, “We can’t let religious people have all the fun!” —it happens that most co-sponsors are faith-based groups.
Faith-based groups aren’t the only ones with a history of helping refugees resettle in a city that terms itself a Sanctuary City. Silk cites this legacy, mentioning the Elm City Resident Card program as something that marks New Haven as a leader in immigrant rights. “Continuing that tradition feels right,” she says.
In a recent statement, Mayor Toni Harp ARC ’78 stated that, “New Haven will continue to welcome new residents from other countries and embrace their positive contributions in our community.” As her Director of Communications, Laurence Grotheer, says, “Mayor Harp often points out that with the exception of native Americans, every single New Haven resident has ancestry from outside the United States, is descended from immigrants, and cedes the high ground trying to deny entry to new immigrants.”
This commitment to immigrants places New Haven at odds with those who are less keen to take in refugees. Last November, for example, Chris George and his team at IRIS agreed to take in a Syrian refugee family at a moment’s notice after Governor (and now, potential vice president) Mike Pence barred them from coming to Indiana, where they were originally to resettle. An article published in theConnecticut Mirror on Nov. 18 referred to the family as “unwitting pawns in a national post-Paris ideological argument.”
Yet on the other side, the voices of Mike Pence and others opposed to opening the United States’ doors are louder and more vehement now than ever. A letter to the editor printed in the New Haven Register not three weeks ago, on Sept. 7, argued that taking in more Syrian refugees is ill-advised for many reasons, among them that “we are currently witnessing… Islam’s mandatory migration for purposes of waging jihad.”
On a recent sunny afternoon, the corner in front the IRIS office teems with chatty men and cigarette smoke. Laurel McCormack stands on the stoop. “Yalla, guys!” she calls out, gesturing for the men to come inside. “And don’t smoke! It’ll kill you!” It is time for the day’s Cultural Orientation (CORE) session to begin.
The two and a half days of CORE sessions are part of the government’s requirements for resettlement. Families resettled in the last two months by co-sponsors and IRIS case managers alike crowd into a small classroom for today’s class, which will cover education, child abuse, and employment. Small children reach for the Chex mix while their parents pick at rice from styrofoam takeout boxes, and exactly twelve minutes behind schedule the session itself begins. Three translators and two instructors work sentence by sentence with the families, most of them Syrian, to discuss the basics of sending your child to school. This is what a school break is. This is how the school bus works. Sometimes you need to write a note for your child, here is what it should look like.
It takes a while to get through the material. The classroom is cacophonous; the students all chatter. There are babies crying and children running around and the rustling of near-empty bags of Famous Amos cookies. Each sentence from a translator triggers a stream of questions. The parents lean forward in their seats and scribble notes. A few rush up to the instructors during the fifteen minute breaks. What if the bus doesn’t stop very close to our house? What if my daughter gets sick? What if my son needs help with his schoolwork?
The room is abuzz with confusion—about the finer points of raising children in America, and also about where the second package of graham crackers went. But there’s a calmness, too, evident in the way one couple holds hands atop the table, or in how a young man swings around in his cushioned swivel chair.
After the first break, the CORE instructors move into discussing the challenges children will face in the coming months. Adjusting is hard, they emphasize; it takes time. As they speak, a young girl runs in from the children’s playroom, tears in her eyes. Her father scoops her up, kisses her cheeks, sets her down on his lap. Then he returns to his notes.