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Discussion of church refugee prorgram gets heated

December 06, 2006|by JENNIFER FITCH

Discussion became heated Tuesday when the Hagerstown City Council sat down with the manager of the Virginia Council of Churches Refugee Resettlement Program's local office, which sponsored a group of African refugees at the center of October's West Franklin Street stir.

A language barrier Oct. 11 led officials to quarantine a building and set up decontamination tents in a perceived health scare.

George Miller, manager of the resettlement program's Hagerstown office, did not specifically detail what happened that day when he attended the city council work session, but instead described the program and fielded pointed questions from council members.

Councilman Lew Metzner referred to an "If not us, then who?" way of thinking and said the refugees are going through a bureaucratic process to enter the United States legally.

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"The concerns my fellow (council) members raise are legitimate, but you should not leave this meeting tonight feeling that you have a city government that ... believe(s) that bringing refugees into this country is inappropriate," Metzner said.

"Nobody said 'country,'" Councilwoman Penny Nigh quickly said, before further explaining that she feels Hagerstown is "not a rich community" and that the refugees might be taking jobs needed by other residents.

"You are bringing more people in, and there are less jobs," Nigh said.

Miller countered that there are 5,000 available jobs in the corridor between Chambersburg, Pa., and Winchester, Va. He said the refugees typically work low-paying warehouse jobs.

"They're very anxious to work overtime, etc.," Miller said.

Councilwoman Alesia Parson-McBean expressed concerns that the refugees' mental needs aren't being attended to as they encounter a new culture. Parson-McBean, who wants to connect the refugees with Africans in metropolitan areas, said her concerns are illustrated in possible trauma associated with the West Franklin Street incident alone.

"For this community of African-Americans who saw that, they saw it as a miscarriage of treatment of people who are (in this community)," Parson-McBean said. "The African-American community wasn't aware that they were there. The city wasn't aware that they were there. And on top of that, we don't have an African community to reach out to, but we have them 66 miles away."

Miller asked that he and Parson-McBean talk in private, but she responded that she was comfortable having the conversation in the public meeting.

"I would like to have you come and meet these people. No one from your community, as you say, the African-American community, has shown up one time with any of our refugees," Miller said.

The two bickered briefly, with Miller saying that "you know they're here."

"I know now that they're here," Parson-McBean said, and Miller responded that interaction has not changed since the public incident in October.

The council asked Miller to keep it abreast of new refugees being settled in the city. He said projections show 100 new people arriving between October 2006 and the end of September in 2007.

Sixty-two families have been resettled in Washington County, Miller said.

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