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VCC fumbled refugee resettlement

June 02, 2007

To the editor:

There is an old saying - never get into a verbal altercation with a person who is holding a microphone. A statement like that probably could also be made about getting in a written discussion with a writer. However, I feel I need to take exception to Tim Rowland's commentary in the Sunday, May 20, edition of The Herald-Mail related to the placement of refugees into the Hagerstown/Washington County community.

No doubt a great number of folks are confusing the dilemma of refugees with illegal immigrants who are coming to this country. These are totally separate issues. Welcoming refugees who were moved from their home country due to persecution is one of the principles this country was founded upon. Folks coming here who are refugees are a welcome addition to the variety and prosperity of this country.

I was, however, one of those individuals who contacted the commissioners over the request of the Virginia Council of Churches for $15,000. As the director of Community Action Council, one of the larger helping organizations in Washington County, our mission is to assist the less fortunate in the community with "a hand up - not a handout." I must clarify that it is not the refugees who are the issue, but the organization charged with placing these individuals and families in the community.

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I attended a meeting more than two years ago and the statement was made that the Virginia Council of Churches decided Hagerstown was a good place for refugees to be resettled. There were available jobs, decent housing, good schools and everything needed to make the transition from refugees to good citizens. I feel that says a lot about the Washington County community. The problem was, that to the best of my knowledge, there was no discussion with the helping community or research into what was truly happening in the community in general.

About the time of the first resettlement activity, the Westview townhouses were being demolished to create the revitalized West End neighborhood of Gateway Crossing. Residents of Westview were being relocated to make way for new construction, which overtaxed an already tight housing market.

Then there was the infamous haz-mat incident last summer when another refugee who apparently did not speak English created what turned out to be a great training exercise because morning sickness was confused with some contagious disease. No one knew these folks were in the community and apparently those who did know could not be reached to defuse the situation.

Transportation is another major issue in our community. We hear all the time about the number of jobs that are available on Hopewell Road. The problem is that transportation is not always available during the hours a person requires it in order to have a job at Tractor Supply or Lennox or Staples Distribution. Yes, the refugees want to and do work but their getting to work is problematic as well.

I do not find fault with the decision of the commissioners or the purported attitude of residents of Washington County as Rowland depicted them. In fact, many folks with whom I have talked agree that we should be helping these persecuted individuals and families. We at CAC have helped a number of refugee families and will continue to do so. The issue is simply that when the Virginia Council of Churches decides to do something such as this, it needs to be open and inform all those involved.

It needs to work with the community and be a partner and develop strong partnerships. This will benefit the refugees coming to make Washington County their home and working with the Washington County community for the benefit of all. Many of the existing agencies could have helped refugees make the transition to residents of our community a great deal easier if they had been involved from the beginning.

Washington County remains a welcoming community for those seeking to start over their lives free from persecution. We just need to be included in the discussions that impact all of us, from refugee to life-time resident. While I appreciate Rowland addressing this subject, I believe a more appropriate approach would be to investigate the Virginia Council of Churches' rationale for choosing Washington County as one of the more affordable places to live in Maryland and Virginia.

We may not be the best community to ensure a refugee's success, given our limited economic resources.

Dave Jordan, executive director

Community Action Council

Hagerstown

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