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Couple helps refugees resettle

October 27, 2005|by JANET HEIM

Editor's note: There are a lot of people you see around town that you recognize, but don't know anything about. People like ...

Gary and Laurie Graves

Age - Both are 60

Occupation - Gary is vice president of sales for Fil-Tec in Smithsburg; Laurie works part time for West Virginia University supervising student teachers and teaches a class in child development at Hagerstown Community College.

Hometown - Both are from Topeka, Kan., although they met in Denmark.

Where would you see the Graveses? - As chair of the board of missions at Christ's Reformed Church in Hagerstown, Gary Graves has been part of the group responsible for helping resettle Meshketian Turkish Russians to the area. He also was involved with the resettlement of 10 to 12 Belarussian families four to five years ago.

The Turkish-Russian refugees were sponsored by the Virginia Council of Churches, which is part of Church World Services. The refugees were fleeing Russia as a result of ethnic persecution and many had to wait approximately two years for permission to enter the United States.

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They lived as though they were under house arrest - forbidden from owning property and with curfews and restrictions on where they could go, Laurie Graves said.

So far, 82 Turkish-Russians have arrived here since February, with more extended family members expected.

"We had no idea of the magnitude of this," Laurie Graves said. "The community needs to realize we didn't expect so many. Once we agreed to take any, they just kept coming."

An interfaith coalition of Protestant churches and the Islamic Society of Western Maryland is working to help with the relocation.

"George Miller (president of the Literacy Council of Washington County) and Betty Willson (a longtime community volunteer and activist) are involved every day and Dr. Siddiqui is the head of it," Laurie Graves said. "I don't want anyone to think we're the only ones running it because that's so far from the truth."

While Laurie Graves has been helping with airport pickups and providing transportation to English classes, the grocery store and to jobs, it has been Gary Graves' responsibility to help the refugees find jobs. He wants to clear up a misconception that some local residents have.

"They're taking jobs that can't be filled," he said. "This area has many job openings."

Finding housing, registering for Social Security cards, opening bank accounts, learning how to work ATMs, and getting driver's licenses and phone service have been the main priorities for refugees.

While the refugees do get food stamps and some financial assistance initially, Gary Graves said it's for a short time until they find work and can support themselves. For most, they're paying their own way within three months of arriving here.

"They're more of an asset than a drain. They want to work and take advantage of opportunities available in Washington County," Gary Graves said. "Most all in a relatively short time will be productive, working hard and paying taxes."

Because most of the refugees are Muslim, the mosque has been actively involved with the resettlement. As a result, the Graveses have been blessed with friendships with Drs. Shahab Siddiqui and Zubair Faridi and their wives.

"You get something in return," Gary Graves said. "It might be unexpected."

More than anything, the Graveses see this as an opportunity to extend a helping hand.

"This is a continuing progression of what has built the U.S. over history," Laurie Graves said. "These people are going through the same assimilation as our ancestors."

Hobbies - The couple's favorite activity is spending time with their two grandchildren. Gary loves to golf, but has little free time for it right now.

Laurie's main hobby, as she points to the piano in their home, is music. She uses her talents as the musician at Ebenezer A.M.E. Church. When Ebenezer's church on Bethel Street was condemned in the late 1990s, the congregation began meeting at Christ's Reformed.

Not long after they moved into their new building, Ebenezer's musician of 50 years died. Laurie offered to fill in and has taken on the position permanently, in addition to being a steward at the church.

"They've really taken me in," Laurie Graves said.

What do the Graveses like best about Washington County? - Gary Graves said that having a job he enjoys is one of the best things about living in Washington County - that and the people, a sentiment that Laurie Graves seconds. He also lists the pace of the area, the ease of getting around and the climate as other positive aspects.

Laurie Graves said she likes the size of Hagerstown and proximity to Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.

"This has become home," she said. "We have a framework of friends, a framework of faith."




If you know anyone in the community who might make an interesting Our Town feature, contact Janet Heim at 301-733-5131, ext. 2024, or send e-mail to janeth@herald-mail.com.

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