Jenny: Prior to bringing the refugees to Washington County, what efforts were made to make connections with the local Council of Churches or individual churches to support and welcome these people?
Richard: Every state that resettles refugees has a state refugee coordinator. Maryland's coordinator, Ed Lin, met with City Council. He also met with the Washington County Health Department, Department of Social Services and other leaders in the community. I met with leaders of the Hagerstown Area Religious community. After my initial meeting, an interfaith religious group was formed that helped to resettle refugees in the initial arrivals into Hagerstown.
Jenny: Many in the community felt that the refugees were brought in under cloak of darkness to avoid public outcry. Approaching the community first would have avoided most of that. Of course, for everyone, hindsight is 20-20. That said, what efforts and connections with local church groups and others have been made in Washington County to ensure community support?
Richard: When you consider that refugees have been here since the early '90s and that efforts were made to explain the program, early on in our involvement we sought to avoid the darkness. Over the last two months, a concerted effort has been made to involve local churches, community groups and volunteers to provide support for refugees.
Moderator: Does VCC have any sites in Virginia?
Richard: We resettle refugees at four sites within Virginia. Our largest resettlement site is in Richmond, followed by Newport News, Harrisonburg and Manassas.
Moderator: In his opinion article earlier this year, Dave Jordan criticized the VCC for its poor communication. Has that been remedied?
Dave: I feel that with the forum coming up on Sept. 19, along with the monthly meetings that have been taking place since January, communication has taken great strides in providing everyone with information about the resettlement program.
Amy: For whatever reason, adequate word did not get out to the masses or those who have shown an interest in volunteering in the past. That is why some of the editorials have been deemed quite hurtful to many who would ordinarily be out there helping. How can we help? Are there programs or ways to assist the main office, at a main church, or Pangborn School or in the neighborhoods housing the refugees. (I understand that a high concentration are in that area.)
Richard: There are many ways to become involved with the program. You can volunteer to help with transportation and community orientation, your church or civic organization can assist with donations of household good and items (i.e., furniture, cookware, towels, sundry items), all those items for people to set up house. If you happen to have an older vehicle that runs, you might want to donate it. Your donation would help provide a family transportation to work. You can contact the Hagerstown office at 301-665-9564 and ask to talk to Mary Beth or Dan.
Moderator: Does Washington County have enough low-cost housing to absorb any more refugees?
Dave: I would suggest this is more an affordable-housing issue than a low-income housing question. There is limited supply of low-income housing for families, but I do not see this as a refugee issue.
Richard: I only know of two refugee families that are currently in low-income housing. One is an elderly couple, the other a single mother with three children. By far, most refugees live in market-rate housing. Hagerstown has a very favorable ratio of income to rental rates, one of the best of all of our resettlement sites.
Moderator: What is the fiscal impact of the refugees on the school system? Do we pay for the cost of teaching their children English?