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Coordinator says refugee program has shortcomings

December 28, 2006|by KAREN HANNA

HAGERSTOWN - A program for refugees moving to Hagerstown has not done enough to solicit assistance from outside groups or publicize its efforts.

George Miller, program coordinator of the Hagerstown Refugee Resettlement office, said he is trying to do better, but he conceded the office has its shortcomings in recent interviews.

In the wake of a health scare that temporarily shut down West Franklin Street, others' reactions to the program were more critical. Community leaders who said they welcome the refugees raised concerns about communication and the availability of jobs.

"I'm just telling you that being practical, we need to be able to take care of what we have here," Hagerstown City Councilwoman Penny M. Nigh said Wednesday.

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Miller acknowledged that the refugee resettlement office must do more to find support for its efforts. For each refugee it resettles, the office gets $850 - half goes directly to the refugee's immediate needs, such as housing - but the federal grants have not been enough, Miller said.

"We have not done a good job in that respect at all," Miller said. "We need to do more of that. We have not done enough in reaching out to the local churches for help, and we need to do more of that."

The Hagerstown Refugee Resettlement office has helped resettle more than 200 refugees, according to figures Miller provided earlier this month. Miller said he believes the office might handle about 100 new refugee cases this fiscal year.

The office has outspent its government assistance by $23,000 this year, Miller said.

Many people arrive with just one or two bags of belongings, Miller said.

"These are refugees, some of them - many of them - have even been living on dirt floors," Miller said.

City Councilwoman Kelly S. Cromer said last week she believes the Virginia Council of Churches, which directs some refugee resettlement offices, including the Hagerstown office, failed both the community and the refugees.

"It just seems to me that the Virginia Council of Churches is just dumping them here, and I don't think what happened on West Franklin Street would have happened if this were planned properly," Cromer said.

West Franklin Street was closed for hours one night in October as health officials tried to determine what was making an African refugee ill. They later learned she had morning sickness.

City's concerns

Cromer was emphatic the refugees are welcome, but said she worries about the impact on already overcrowded schools.

"I think it's wonderful that we would be thought of as an economically viable community, and that this is a destination that they would want to come to," Cromer said.

At facilities such as warehouse-distribution centers, employers "are constantly looking for new hires," said Timothy R. Troxell, executive director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission.

Troxell said he does not think the refugees will cause anyone who is looking for a job a hardship.

"They've helped improve neighborhoods - neighborhoods that were on the tipping point - would they get worse or would they get better? - and refugees are generally hardworking, and they've contributed to those neighborhoods," said Martin Ford, associate director of the Maryland Office for New Americans, which helps oversee the state's resettlement program.

Nigh said there are not enough jobs for everyone.

"Well, I guess Mr. Troxell needs to get out, and he needs to do some footwork, OK?" Nigh asked. "And, why is it that we still have people who are unemployed?"

At the Maryland Office for New Americans, research statistician Asnake Yeheyis said on average, refugees quit government cash-assistance programs in 5.2 months.

"Most of them get employment quickly," Yeheyis said. "The employment situation is much better than in any other counties, in Hagerstown."

Though the refugees are eligible for government aid, Washington County Administrator Rodney M. Shoop said he does not believe they will cause a strain.

"It's not a huge number, and it's not overwhelming in terms of the services that are available here in the county," Shoop said last week.

If they need help, some groups, including churches, said they would be willing to lend a hand.

Hagerstown Rotary President Christina Trenton said a representative of the office addressed the group a while ago.

"At that time, they didn't ask for help, but I'm sure that there would be resources available," Trenton said.

Less than a week after City Council members grilled him about the resources available to refugees, Miller said the community could use a little more diversity.

"If there's an opportunity for the community to interact with the refugees, they will find they're really great people, and you know, another thing, there's not a single one of us that I can think of whose ancestors are native people," Miller said.

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