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Council to close office to resettle refugees

Hagerstown described as 'unwelcoming'

Hagerstown described as 'unwelcoming'

September 29, 2007|By DAN DEARTH

HAGERSTOWN - The Virginia Council of Churches, citing an "unwelcoming" community, will close its Hagerstown office to resettle refugees by the end of this year, an organization official said.

The Rev. Richard Cline of the Virginia Council of Churches wrote in a Thursday e-mail to The Herald-Mail's opinion page that the office would begin reducing staff Monday.

The office is expected to close its doors for good by Dec. 7, the e-mail said.

"The people who made the decision felt that it was not in the best interests of refugees to resettle them in an area that is perceived to be unwelcoming ... I regret that our presence in Hagerstown had to end in such a manner," wrote Cline, who was out of his office Friday and could not be reached for comment.

Edward Haurand, the Virginia Council of Churches refugee resettlement operations manager, said only Cline could comment on the issue.

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But Haurand did say it was the U.S. Department of State and not the Virginia Council of Churches that made the decision to close the Hagerstown office.

Gina Wills, a State Department spokeswoman, said Haurand was mistaken. She said Church World Services, a parent organization of the Virginia Council of Churches, was responsible.

Church World Services did not have a spokesperson on duty Friday who knew enough to comment about the situation in Hagerstown.

Hagerstown City Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said he was disappointed by the decision no matter who made it.

"People have an obligation to help their fellow man," he said.

Metzner said he believed a minority of people who spoke out against the refugees could have prompted the office's closure.

Councilwoman Penny M. Nigh said Hagerstown residents have a hard enough time trying to pay their bills and taxes. The last thing residents need at this point is to have their taxes go toward resettling refugees, she said.

Furthermore, Nigh said it was her opinion that officials from the Virginia Council of Churches exercised arrogance by bringing refugees to the area before seeking the input of local officials.

"Cline didn't care if the city approved of relocating the refugees or not," she said.

Councilwoman Kelly S. Cromer agreed, saying the Virginia Council of Churches should have worked with local government bodies.

Cromer said the city wasn't "unwelcoming" of refugees, and blamed the resettlement program's failure on poor management. The refugees were dumped in the city without support and resources, she said.

"I don't have any problem with immigrants or refugees," Cromer said. "If they want to come to this country and make a better life, that's fine. It's unfortunate they were involved in a program that wasn't run properly. The refugees are hurt most by this."

Last October, some residents and government officials discovered that refugees were being resettled locally when a Burundian woman experienced a severe case of morning sickness on West Franklin Street, where the refugees were living.

Because the woman's translator was unavailable, authorities thought she and other refugees possibly had a communicable disease. Hazmat units were sent to the area, and the 12 African refugees were briefly quarantined.

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