Refugee relocation a positive program

June 16, 2007

To the editor:

Having grown up in Hagerstown and being a long-time resident, I feel qualified to comment on the area and the people. For the most part, we are a generous and compassionate community.

About a year ago, I began volunteering to help with the resettlement of the refugees. I soon discovered that I was working with some very courageous people who left everything familiar to come to America to seek freedom and the opportunity for a better life. (If that sounds familiar, I believe it is because those are similar words to what our history teachers said about the Pilgrims and the immigrants of the 1920s and 1930s.)

As a volunteer, I worked with several local churches and individuals who donated clothing, furniture and even money to assist with the program. This is not something new; all of the organizations - without exception - have done and are still doing the same for the needy of Hagerstown.


By last November I was spending so much time helping that I was offered a full-time position. In my role as an employee, I spoke with a few people who called to voice their opinion against the refugee program. In every instance, I invited the person to come to our office and meet our staff and to meet with some of the refugees. Not one person accepted my offer.

In her recent letter published in The Herald-Mail, Anne Corcoran of Keedysville implied that the refugees were being secreted into Hagerstown.

This is incorrect. Presentations were made to both the City Council and the Washington County Commissioners from the onset of the program. Corcoran further exaggerated the estimated number of future arrivals from 100 or 200 to 1,000.

During the past 31 months, between November 2004 and May 2007, 64 family units representing 182 refugees were resettled in Washington County. Of these, 67 are children and 14 of those are under the age of 6.

So our school system has absorbed 53 new students as a result of the refugee program. Some people mistakenly thought 182 new families were settled. In fact, it is an average of six refugees or one-and-a-half families a month. This number no doubt fades in comparison to the number of people who move into Washington County from other places in the United States.

All but one of the refugee households has at least one person employed. All are learning English, paying taxes and spending their hard-earned money in Washington County. Two have saved enough to buy their own homes.

I see this program as a plus for Hagerstown and Washington County. It is easy to forget that only a few generations ago all but the pureblooded American Indian was an immigrant or a refugee. Einstein was a refugee, as were many other great minds and hearts that helped to form this country. What would America be today if they had been denied refuge?

I hesitated to write because I am an employee of the Virginia Council of Churches, but as a Christian and a Hagerstonian, I felt compelled. The "Mail Call" and "You Said It" columns cater to people who are willing to criticize, but are too embarrassed by their own words to sign their names. This gives the false impression that they are a majority opinion.

Most of us who agree that the refugee program is worthy and beneficial to the growth of our community see their words for what they are and have chosen to ignore them. However, given the recent activism against the program, I feel compelled to respond.

Mary Beth Alphin

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