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Refugee resettlement discussed at forum

Refugee resettlement discussed at forum

September 20, 2007|By HEATHER KEELS

HAGERSTOWN - About 100 people gathered Wednesday night at Hagerstown Community College's Kepler Theater to listen to a presentation from local, state and national officials about the resettlement of refugees in Washington County.

The Virginia Council of Churches, an organization that works with the U.S. State Department to resettle people who have fled their homes out of fear of persecution, has proposed placing 50 refugees in Washington County over the next fiscal year, program director Richard Cline said.

While representatives from the State Department and the Maryland Office for New Americans (MONA) stressed that refugee resettlement programs focus on helping refugees become self-sufficient, tax-paying members of the community, residents lined up to question the officials about the drain refugees place on taxpayers, schools, Social Security and other public services.

"I think the concern in our community is financial," said Louise Dawson, who suggested that refugees be sponsored and resettled by volunteers within churches instead of through taxpayer funds.

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Deanna Rudisill, 56, of Hagerstown, said she was frustrated that refugees older than 65 can receive Social Security benefits even if they have never paid into the system.

"I work hard for my money, and I like to help other people, but I also need to take care of myself," Rudisill said.

Martin Ford, MONA's associate director, stressed that the majority of refugees, and of immigrants generally, are younger than 65, and refugees between 18 and 65 must go to work and pay taxes within their first 30 days. Ford said young legal immigrants help counter an aging population and actually help keep the Social Security program healthy.

"You're speaking of refugees as if they are guests," Ford said in response to one resident's concern about crowding schools. "I don't see it as a drain. I see it as an investment in the future. They become taxpayers as well."

Mary Haines spoke on behalf of the Valencia Neighborhood Watch Group, saying members of her community felt they had been left in the dark about the presence of refugees in their neighborhood, leaving them unprepared for a situation last fall in which a nonEnglish-speaking refugee had difficulty communicating with police about a medical condition.

"We're not a racist community," Haines said. "We're not against the refugees that are here, but we are for their coming in in an orderly fashion that provides for their welfare."

In January, MONA initiated a monthly meeting between refugee resettlement coordinators and local health, police and fire officials to improve communication within the community, MONA director Edward Lin said.

Other forum attendees expressed support for the program. The Rev. Rick Jewell, president of the Hagerstown Area Religious Council, said the interfaith group passed a resolution Wednesday supporting the resettlement of refugees in Washington County.

"All of our faiths' basic tenets call us to welcome the least and the lost," Jewell said.

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