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Is it refugees or change that we fear?

September 23, 2007|By BOB MAGINNIS

Richard Cline of the Virginia Council of Churches was among the last officials to take the stage Wednesday during a forum on refugee resettlement at Hagerstown Community College.

He did not look like a man eager to trumpet VCC's accomplishments, but like someone who was reluctantly ready to take his lumps.

He argued that the cause of bringing refugees here from one form of tyranny or another to live in this area was a worthwhile cause, but admitted that VCC had fumbled the public relations part of the job.

"Have we made mistakes? Have we always done the best job of communicating with the public?" Cline asked. No, he said.

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It was not for lack of trying, but VCC forgot - or didn't know - the cardinal rule of public relations: You have to do it before you need it, so you can accumulate goodwill like money in a savings account.

Then if something bad happens, it's balanced in the public's mind against the good things that have already been done and publicized.

The first realization some local residents had that refugees were being resettled locally was in October 2006 when a Burundian woman living in downtown Hagerstown - whose translator was unavailable - had a severe case of morning sickness.

Her son went out and got a city policeman. From then on, things went from bad to worse. Mary Beth Alphin, a resettlement worker, told the forum audience that other refugees living in the same building, who had been advised to be agreeable, said "yes" when asked if they, too, were sick.

Soon the street was closed off and people in hazmat suits were checking for the possibility of a communicable disease.

In fact, a number of stories were done on the VCC program as far back as 2005. In February of that year, a story was written about the resettlement of a group of Meskhetian Turks, who had been relocated by Josef Stalin from Soviet Georgia to Uzbekistan, where they were targeted for a massacre and persecution in 1989.

Four more stories appeared in 2005 and another four in 2006. This year, of course, there have been plenty more, including an interview I did with Siriki Diabate, a journalist from the Ivory Coast who was beaten because of reports critical of the government.

A few of the questions asked Wednesday included the following:

"Why Hagerstown?" was answered by Cline, who said that VCC had been asked to take over a refugee resettlement office that had been operated in New Windsor in Carroll County, Md. for many years by the Church of the Brethren. This wasn't something new, Cline said, but a continuation of something that's been going on for many years in Western Maryland.

Do refugees get health screenings? Yes, officials said, once overseas and then again in the U.S.

Are refugees who agreed to pay plane fare to this country repaying that money to the government and do they understand their obligations? State Department officials who attended said that refugees sign promissory notes written in their own language and know they are required to repay that money.

Are refugees exempt from state and federal taxes and do they get free cars?

No to both, Cline said.

Some of the questions from citizens on Wednesday concerned how much taxpayer assistance the refugees would be getting, with some questioners expressing the sentiment that it wasn't fair and that "we should take care of our own first."

The notion that the refugees are not "our own" and might overcrowd local schools riled Martin Ford, associate director of the Maryland Office of New Americans.

"You're speaking of these people as if they were guests. They become citizens. They become taxpayers as well," Ford said.

I agree with Mary Haines, who spoke representing the Valencia Neighborhood Watch, that Hagerstown is not a racist town. At least it's no more racist than any other town.

I do believe that for a certain group of Hagerstown-area residents, it is not the idea of new residents that is upsetting, but the idea of change itself.

This refugee issue comes after a recent, rapid increase in home prices and resulting property tax hikes. Moving out to a more affordable area has been made more difficult by the increase in gasoline prices and, oh yes, caps on electricity prices are about to come off, too.

One of the people who spoke Wednesday talked about moving here to escape the ills of other areas. She asked where she would have to go next if this area falls prey to those same problems.

What we have really fallen prey to is several wrong-headed ideas - that residential growth would pay for itself with new taxes, that South Mountain would continue to be a barrier to rapid growth and that because of an historically slow annual growth rate, we need not put too much effort into planning for the future. If nothing's going to change that much, why spend a lot of money on the possibility that it could, right?

As a community, we are unprepared in many ways for much that is taking place. The present economic downturn will give us a chance to play catch-up, but this is likely to be the last break of this sort Washington County will get. It would be nice if those who are closely scrutinizing the refugee program would spend some energy eye-balling local government, too.

Bob Maginnis is

editorial page editor of

The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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