Hagerstown sees wave of refugees

November 30, 1999|By KAREN HANNA

His wrists branded by the restraints he once wore, Samba Guisse says he believes he finally has the freedom others died to enjoy.

"I like America, and the people (of) America because I love my liberty. I have my liberty, and the liberty of my family," said Guisse, a native of Mauritania who survived 17 years in exile and 16 months in prison.

On Aug. 18, he started a new life.

Guisse is one of 217 refugees who have moved to Hagerstown over the last two years, since the Virginia Council of Churches, an affiliate of Church World Service, opened a resettlement office here, according to figures provided last week by the office.

Next year, George Miller said, about 100 more refugees might come to Hagerstown.

"We'll get more Africans, and we are looking to get a whole lot of Burmese people," said Miller, program coordinator of the Hagerstown office.


The Hagerstown office opened to help resettle a wave of Russian-Turkish refugees. They wanted to live close to family members who already had resettled in the Lancaster, Pa., area, Miller said. Almost 200 of Hagerstown's refugees are Russian Turks.

The Hagerstown program came under fire after problems communicating with a sick African refugee led to a public health scare in October that temporarily closed West Franklin Street. Health officials later learned the woman had morning sickness.

Coming to America

Each year, the U.S. Department of State determines how many people likely will resettle in the country from areas of the world wracked by tyranny and conflict. The United States recognizes as refugees people who have fled their native countries because they fear persecution based on their political views or religious or ethnic backgrounds, according to information on a State Department Web site.

The government provides cash and medical assistance to the refugees based on their families' composition. After five years, refugees may apply for naturalization.

The State Department estimates 70,000 refugees could come this fiscal year. To handle resettlement efforts, 10 agencies, including Church World Service and nine other private organizations, have worked out agreements with the government, said Martin Ford, associate director of the Maryland Office for New Americans.

Resettlement offices must provide refugees at least 30 days of essential services, such as housing, food and clothing, said Richard Cline, director of refugee resettlement for the Virginia Council of Churches. The offices offer help with finding jobs for up to five years, he said.


Before they come to the U.S., refugees undergo background checks, including drug testing and interviews, and medical evaluations, Miller said.

Once they arrive in the U.S., refugees undergo health screenings, said Elizabeth Nuckles, communicable disease program manager for the Washington County Health Department.

Nuckles said health department officers use interpreters from a language bank to communicate with the refugees.

"You know, it's hard, but we struggle through it, and it works well," Nuckles said.

Government grants pay for the screenings ? they can cost as much as $300 per refugee ? and treatment for some types of medical problems, including tuberculosis, Nuckles said.

Government assistance is available for refugees to treat conditions that the health department does not handle, Nuckles said.

Settling in

In all, the government projects the State Department will spend $853 million this fiscal year on the refugee resettlement program.

To qualify for aid, adult refugees must be looking for work and taking English-language classes, a Hagerstown Community College official said.

The classes are free for refugees, said Nettie Schubel, instructional specialist for adult education and literacy services.

"They try to get them to work as soon as possible," Schubel said. "They don't need to know the language to get a job."

Students' language backgrounds at South Hagerstown High School include Swahili, Russian and Somali dialects, Principal Richard Akers said. He said students learn English through immersion in classes.

"I think they fit in pretty quickly," Akers said.

Marcie Mason, human resources administrator at Sealy Mattress in Williamsport, said 23 Russian refugees are working at the company, where workers speak about a dozen different languages.

"They're all intelligent, hardworking people," Mason said. "Most of them have picked up English very quickly."

Miller said he works with area employers to find jobs, including blue-collar and temporary jobs, the refugees can do.

"They get cash assistance and food stamps, the same as everybody else," Miller said. "They are not taking anything away, and they will go to work much quicker."

A native Belarussian, Yelena Zanko came with her family to America as a refugee just before the first wave of Russian Turks, and she now works as a resettlement case worker.

She said the refugees who followed her are finding their way ? they are buying furniture, cars and even houses.

"I just like to help people because I came four years ago," Zanko said. "I know it is hard to adjust to a new culture, but I know after a certain amount of time, they will be the same as I. They will not be as they came."

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