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Refugee resettlement officials working to mend fences

June 13, 2007|By BOB MAGINNIS

With the possible exception of the plan to rename Hagerstown's Memorial Boulevard in honor of baseball great Willie Mays, no issue has riled up local folks as much as the plan to resettle refugees here.

Hagerstown and Washington County's elected officials have rejected the idea of giving the program, run by the Virginia Council of Churches, a few thousand dollars - and not because either is that strapped for cash.

It's because many local residents just plain don't like the idea. Perhaps it's because there is some confusion between the refugees - who are here legally - and the millions of illegal immigrants.

Whichever it is, the furor caught officials of VCC and Church World Service by surprise, said Richard Cline, who directs VCC's refugee resettlement program.

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"The extent of the reaction is something I've not seen before," Cline said.

In an effort to mend fences, Cline and the Rev. Joseph Roberson, director of Church World Service's Immigration and Refugee Program, are spending this week meeting with local elected officials, directors of nonprofits and citizen critics.

"These are people who have raised some questions and voiced some concerns," Cline said.

Both men met with me Monday, to explain how the program works and to try to dispel some of the misinformation about it.

Roberson said refugee resettlement is a U.S. government program, which finds new homes for people in foreign lands who have been persecuted because of their race, religion or political beliefs.

Church World Service works with groups such as VCC, Roberson said, adding that "each local affiliate is supposed to work with co-sponsors and volunteers."

To a certain extent, that has been done, Cline said, adding that it is wrong to say that only two of the 64 families resettled here had sponsors.

"Of 64 families, about 40 have had sponsors. Two-thirds of the Meskhetian Turks had sponsors," he said. Cline said that in that case, representatives of the Church of the Brethren, the United Church of Christ and the Islamic Society of Western Maryland worked together.

Cline said other misinformation about the program is that many refugees are in subsidized housing. Not true, he said. Only one elderly couple is in one of the senior-citizen complexes and they had to go on a waiting list like all other citizens.

Asked about an October 2006 incident in which morning sickness suffered by an African refugee living in downtown Hagerstown prompted an infectious disease scare because the woman couldn't speak English, Cline said steps have been taken to keep that from happening again.

Now there are monthly meetings that include representatives of the Hagerstown Police Department, the Department of Social Services, Hagerstown Community College and the state refugee coordinators' office.

Police now have names and locations of local refugees and numbers to call if there is a problem or concern with one of them, Cline said.

In retrospect, Cline said, "we have not done as good a job as we should have" of getting the information out.

On the issue of school costs, Cline said the federal program requires that children of refugees be enrolled in school.

As for the complaint that resettled people are taking jobs that could be filled by local residents, I spoke to human resources officers at two companies that now employ refugees.

Cheryl Eyler, at Parker Plastics, which makes bottles for the food industry, said there are seven refugees working there.

Asked if they have a good work ethic, Eyler said, "Absolutely. They work hard and they're here every day."

That's in contrast to many workers she's seen in the past year and a half. In that time, 60 workers have come and gone, most for what she termed "attendance issues."

At Dot Foods, there is only one refugee employed, but Fran Sullivan said, "We could use another 10 like him."

Just as at Parker Plastics, Sullivan said there is a turnover problem, with many new employees failing to show up or calling in late.

"It's our biggest problem for the people we have to let go," she said.

So to recap, the refugees who have been resettled here are legal residents who are working hard and paying taxes.

"These people were just like you and me at one time in their lives. Then, because of their race, gender or political views, they were persecuted. We give them a second chance. They're not over here to get a handout," Cline said.

Program officials have admitted their approach wasn't always perfect and that communication was sometimes lacking.

Now for the key question: Do we punish those fleeing persecution because their rescuers made a few mistakes?

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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