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Council wonders if refugees will affect housing

September 21, 2005|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

HAGERSTOWN

andrews@herald-mail.com

About 90 Meskhetian Turk refugees have resettled in Hagerstown this year and another 140 are expected next year, a state official said Tuesday.

Turks were first expelled from Georgia in the former Soviet Union in 1944, Martin Ford told the Hagerstown City Council. Many moved to Russia, but were treated as second-class citizens.

Hagerstown City Council members grilled Ford - the associate director of the Maryland Office for New Americans, a division of the Department of Human Resources - on the program and why the refugees ended up here.

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Councilwoman Penny M. Nigh said Hagerstown now faces a shortage of affordable housing, with apartments often running $700 to $900 a month.

However, Ford argued that 230 people wouldn't make "a major dent" in a city with about 35,000 residents.

He said Muslim Turks often work two or more jobs and would find a way to get by.

"We're talking (about) a drive and work ethic that is admirable and impressive," he said.

The federally funded program has helped refugees for 25 years, said Ford, who also briefed the Washington County Commissioners on the Turks earlier Tuesday.

The program helps refugees resettle for their first eight months in the U.S. and provides them with cash assistance for housing, said David A. Engle, director of the Department of Social Services. Refugees are also eligible for food stamps and forms other forms of federal assistance.

In addition, the refugees get help through English as a Second Language programs and employment services. Children are enrolled in schools.

"Most employable refugees will have jobs within five months," said Rosalind A. Martin of the Department of Social Services.

At the City Council meeting, Ford said Hagerstown's low unemployment rate was one reason it was attractive as a resettlement site.

Councilwoman Alesia D. Parson-McBean noted that unemployment is based on people actively looking for jobs. She agreed with Nigh that affordable housing is a concern here.

Councilman Kristin B. Aleshire said the city could face the same housing problem it faced with Holly Place and North Holly Place, senior citizen group homes on the verge of shutting down this year.

Nigh also wondered why immigrants are allowed to move here without having immunizations first.

Mayor Richard F. Trump said the city welcomes the refugees.

- The Associated Press contributed to this story

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