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The refugee resettlement issue returns Sept. 19 at HCC

August 29, 2007|By BOB MAGINNIS

Like a palm tree in a hurricane, the effort to resettle refugees in Hagerstown was bent nearly to the ground in a storm of criticism earlier this year.

But, like a hardy plant, the refugee effort is rising again - and inviting its strongest critics to ask any questions they need to, in a public forum to be held next month.

According to Dave Jordan, executive director of Community Action Council, the event will be held at Hagerstown Community College's Kepler Theater on Wednesday, Sept. 19, from 7 to 9 p.m.

That closing time is just a guideline, Jordan said, adding that the forum will continue until every legitimate question is answered.

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The refugee resettlement is a project of the Virginia Council of Churches (VCC), a subcontractor for Church World Services.

Even its supporters acknowledge that the effort has been plagued by poor public relations.

Instead of seeing the refugees as victims of tyranny in need of help, many local people confused them with illegal immigrants and complained that they were receiving services that native-born residents were not eligible for.

In an effort to mend fences, VCC and Church World Services officials spent a week in June meeting with local elected officials, directors of nonprofits and critics.

At the time, officials of both groups revealed that they had begun meeting monthly with representatives of the Hagerstown Police Department, the Department of Social Services, Hagerstown Community College and the state refugee coordinator's office.

Police were also given names and locations of local refugees and numbers to call if there were a problem or concern with any of them, officials said.

On May 20, after both the Washington County Commissioners and the Hagerstown City Council, faced with a blast of citizen opposition to the idea, rejected the idea of even donating a token amount, Tim Rowland wrote a column taking the community to task for its apparent callousness.

Jordan responded to that column, arguing that it was poor public relations on the part of the refugee advocates, not heartlessness, that accounted for the opposition.

Richard Cline, who directs VCC's refugee resettlement program, admitted as much to me in June.

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

After Jordan's column appeared, the group meeting monthly asked Jordan to join them. The CAC director, who was so pessimistic about the program in May that he expressed doubts about whether the community had the economic resources to support it, is now on board.

"It wasn't so much that I changed my mind. I was more opposed to Tim calling us boobs in Washington County," he said.

Jordan will be the moderator of the Sept. 19 event and said it will include the following presenters:

· Terry Rusch and Barbara Day, of the State Department's Office of Population, Refugees and Migration.

· Edward Lin, director of the Maryland Office of New Americans and his deputy, Martin Ford.

· Francis Tinsley and Erica Iverson of Church World Services.

· Cline, of the Virginia Council of Churches.

Elected officials have been invited to attend, as have some vociferous critics of the program, Jordan said.

"The bigger picture, at least to me, is getting folks on the same page," Jordan said.

That includes providing answers to frequently asked questions, including: Why did VCC choose Hagerstown for this effort and are the refugees getting benefits that are not available to native-born Americans?

"I think that VCC in particular has seen that they probably needed to talk a little bit more," Jordan said.

In all of this, it's important to remember that the refugees left their native lands because they were being persecuted for their ethnic backgrounds, their religion or their political views.

By all accounts, they are hard-working and eager to share in the American dream.

It's why a lot of people have come to America during the past 200 years.

Can we at least listen to their stories before we decide they're not worthy to join those whose families came here as refugees more than 100 years ago?

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

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