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Interfaith group helps refugees

February 13, 2005|by WANDA T. WILLIAMS

wandaw@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - For the past three weeks, a coalition of interfaith representatives from area churches and a local mosque have united to assist in the relocation of a large group of refugee families to Hagerstown.

"They're the first Meskhetian Turks to be resettled in Maryland," said Richard Kline, director of the Virginia Council of Churches refugee resettlement program.

Council representatives Akok Deng and Vasily Seredich, also former refugees, spoke with representatives at one of several meetings held recently at Christ's Reformed Church in Hagerstown.

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"We're working with different Protestant churches and the Islamic Society of Western Maryland. This demonstrates that people can work together," said Gary Graves, chairman of the board of missions at Christ's Reformed Church.

Based in Richmond, Va., the Virginia Council of Churches was formed in the 1960s and expanded to Maryland in 2001, said Ed Haurand, the council's operations manager.

The council represents Church World Service and the Episcopal Migration Ministries. Both are under contract with the State Department to assist with the relocation of refugees admitted to the United States, he said.

"We're required to provide core services starting within 30 days of receiving a refugee into this country," Haurand said.

Core services include such things as providing safe and sanitary housing, medical checkups and registration for Social Security cards.

Locally, the council also has partnered with the Baltimore-Washington Conference of United Methodist Church Refugee Resettlement Ministries. The council's offices are at the Church of the Brethren in New Windsor, Md. In 2004, the council resettled 605 refugees in Maryland and Virginia.

Haurand said local refugee work is in many ways an extension of foreign mission work.

"A lot of churches are interested in overseas ministries," Haurand said. "They send money or ministry groups to do work abroad. This gives them (local churches) a chance to bring the mission home."

United Methodist Church spokeswoman Dee McCrae said the Baltimore-Washington Conference is exploring ways to recruit more churches into the refugee ministry.

The first of some 65 Meskhetian Turks refugees assigned to Hagerstown arrived in New Windsor last month.

The Turks were deported in 1944 to Central Asia from their ancestral homeland in the Russian state of Georgia by communist dictator Josef Stalin. In 1989, they were the victims of a massacre and persecution in the Fergana Valley in what now is Uzbekistan, Kline said.

Turks who have attempted to return to their homeland have been subjected to discrimination and abuse at the hands of local authorities, and some have been refused residency permits, he said.

Under federal law, Kline said President Bush has agreed to allow up to 70,000 refugees into the United States this year.

Council representatives are working closely with local interfaith refugee sponsors to support the resettlement of about 12 families in Hagerstown.

"They're going to help us with housing, and they will also be helping with employment," Deng said.

The group also is in need of folding beds, household furnishings and transportation.

Deng said the 15 refugees currently living in New Windsor have spent the last month there, following their arrival at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. They will join other Russian-speaking families already living in Hagerstown, Deng said.

A family of four Turks arrived on Friday and another family of three will arrive on Feb. 18, he said. By this summer, all 65 Turks are expected to arrive in Hagerstown.

"It's a great model that's currently being developed in Hagerstown, in that local churches and the local mosque are working to help families start a new life in the United States," Kline said.

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