NEW HAVEN — For the 10 years that he’s been executive director of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services in New Haven, Chris George has complained about two things: Refugee resettlement gets no attention from the press and elected officials don’t understand it.
The first issue was reversed in mid-November when a young Syrian family, enroute to Indianapolis, was diverted to New Haven after the governor of Indiana declared that the state would not allow any Syrian refugees to resettle there.
Since welcoming that family to New Haven, Chris George has been interviewed by The New York Times, NPR, MSNBC and a host of other local and national news outlets, finding himself a spokesperson for refugee resettlement during a week in which some 30 governors declared Syrian refugees to be unwelcome in their states and the House of Representatives passed a hasty bill that would, among other things, deny entrance to Syrian and Iraqi nationals without personal certification by the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Director of the FBI and the Director of National Intelligence that that person posed no threat to the security of the U.S.
His second complaint, the one about elected officials not understanding the resettlement process, still stands, he said, though he is using his moment of fame to try and rectify that situation.
Having been bombarded with media requests over the previous 48 hours, Mr. George took time on Thursday evening, November 19, to address a gathering of members of various faith communities who had expressed an interest in finding out how to sponsor refugee families, and in particular, families from Syria.
The meeting at First Congregational Church of Stamford opened with a prayer from one of the members of that church, which began: “Dear God, fear is in the air. Please don’t let it enter our hearts.”
A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Chris George was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Sultanate of Oman on the Arabian peninsula and retains enough fluency in Arabic to converse with refugees from that region.
He spent a lot of time in refugee camps with Save the Children and also worked for AFS and the international NGO Human Rights Watch.
Executive director of IRIS since 2005, Mr. George is an acknowledged expert on refugee resettlement. He began his talk by explaining that international law defines a refugee as someone who has fled their home country because they’ve been persecuted or they have a well-founded fear of being persecuted.
“They’re not just looking for a better job,” he said. “They’re being persecuted because of their race, their religion, their nationality, their political opinion or their social group.”
The U.N. estimates that there are 60 million refugees and internally displaced persons in the world today, a number unprecedented since World War II.
Noting that there are 19 million refugees currently in the U.S., four million of whom are Syrian, Mr. George explained the rigorous process that takes place before a refugee from any country is allowed to enter the U.S.
That process begins when a person registers with the United Nations as a refugee. Having left their home country, they might be living in a refugee camp or renting an apartment.
Some wait in hopes of returning to their homeland; others seek to be integrated into the country to which they’ve fled.
The majority seek resettlement elsewhere.
Until recently, the U.S. was the largest refugee resettlement country in the world, having resettled more than 70,000 people per year over the past three years.
But not everyone gets to come to the U.S.
“The U.S. government goes in and handpicks families they want to invite to the U.S.,” Mr. George emphasized. “They pick the most vulnerable — the sick, single mothers with kids, ethnic groups who have already been persecuted.
“Let’s say you’re a family of four living in a refugee camp in Jordan who would like to come to the U.S.,” he said. “We don’t just take the U.N.’s word that you’re refugees. The State Department interviews you and hears your story. You say you’ve been tortured? Describe it. You say you were kidnapped? When, where and by whom?”
“The Department of Homeland Security checks your fingerprints against terror watch lists of all the countries we’re friendly with, and also conducts a face-to-face interview. They interview other people who know you, and run forensic tests on your documents.
“If you can’t produce documents that prove you are who you say you are, if we’re not 100 percent sure, then you’re off the list.”
Further, he noted, refugees who are invited to come to the U.S. are required to take out a loan to cover their airfare.
“That sends a very clear message,” he said. “This is a modestly funded program and it won’t be a free ride. It will be a struggle. Do you still want to come? Do you have any friends or family in the U.S. where you’d like to be resettled?
“Let’s say you have an Aunt Fatima in Indianapolis. The State Department will call Aunt Fatima and ask her if she’s willing to help you.”
DNA testing is done to confirm a refugee’s story about who he or she is related to. A series of medical screenings rules out those who might pose a health risk.
“All that can take two, three, four years,” said Mr. George. “It’s the most rigorous security screening in the world; the most rigorous background check and screening of anyone trying to get into this country.”
The idea of a terrorist choosing the refugee resettlement program as a means to entering the U.S. is nonsense, he said. No one bent on doing harm would submit themselves to a three-year process of intense scrutiny when there are other, easier ways to get in.
The U.S. has admitted some 780,000 refugees since 9-11, Mr. George told Voices. Of that number, three have been arrested on terrorist charges, and only one of those three for planning something in this country, which was never carried out.
All three were under FBI surveillance since the day they entered the U.S., he said, and those arrests resulted in further tightening of the screening process.
The family of three that recently arrived in New Haven fled the Syrian city of Homs four years ago and had been waiting in Jordan since then.
“They were on a plane to New York, expecting to go on to Indianapolis,” said Mr. George. “That was on Tuesday. I got a call from our national office asking if we could take a Syrian family of three arriving Wednesday. I said ‘of course!’”
Ordinarily, IRIS receives two weeks notice of an impending arrival. In this case, some serious scrambling was required to find an apartment practically overnight, equip it with essentials and provide what Mr. George called his “favorite federal regulation,” the requirement that every refugee entering the U.S. be served a culturally appropriate hot meal within two hours of their arrival.
Mr. George visited with the family at their apartment shortly after their move in. They also had a private visit from Gov. Dan Malloy.
“They said they were thrilled to be here,” he said. “They already think it was a very fortunate thing they were diverted to Connecticut.
“They said ‘we’re going to stay in this state.’”
Since being thrown into the national spotlight, Chris George said he has received hundreds of emails and phone calls, most of them supportive of Connecticut’s position of welcoming refugees.
He has received numerous inquiries from faith communities inquiring about how they can help refugee families.
IRIS welcomes collaboration with groups who wish to sign on as co-sponsors.
“We usually have two or three congregations every year that volunteer to help resettle refugees,” he said. “Over the past few months, 45 community groups in the state of Connecticut have offered, not just to donate winter coats, but to actually take a refugee into their community.
“People are calling to say we want to help find an apartment for a refugee family. We want to collect furniture. We want to cook that first culturally appropriate hot meal.
“That gives me the confidence to take this to Washington and ask for an increase from 70,000 refugees per year to 140,000. And if they can’t increase the number coming to the U.S., at least increase the number coming to Connecticut. I hope they do that.”
In anticipation of more refugees arriving in the state, IRIS is endeavoring to make co-sponsorship a bit easier and more affordable than it was in the past. Still, the process requires a commitment of time and money.
Co-sponsors agree to raise $3,000 towards resettlement costs, which includes enough money to cover four months rent.
Groups are encouraged to find apartments in or near their own communities. If rent is prohibitive, arrangements might be made to supplement that portion that exceeds what rent would be in New Haven.
“It’s very time-consuming,” Mr. George advised. “Co-sponsors drive them to the hospital for required health checks, drive them to school registration, show them how to shop, show them how to get clothes at Goodwill.
“It takes eight person-hours per day, every day, for the first six months. It’s like a full-time job.”
Ideally, those eight person-hours per day would be shared by members of a congregation or other group so that no one person is overwhelmed.
Someone with language skills might help with English. Someone with connections in the local economy might have a lead on jobs. Someone who already has kids in the school system might take over as that liaison.
IRIS recommends that groups start with a committee of at least 10 people. Small congregations are welcome to partner with others and pool their resources.
Co-sponsors receive training in how best to help refugee families. With a goal of encouraging self-sufficiency, co-sponsors are counseled in how to avoid giving too much.
Efforts are made to match groups with refugee families who show a high probability of success.
“We’ll take the problematic ones,” Mr. George said. “We have one family now with a child with spina bifida. That family we’ll keep in New Haven.”
At the end of six months, IRIS might conduct a small ceremony in recognition of how far the family has come and all the congregation did to help.
“After that,” he said, “hopefully, they’d still be around, still help and be friends. Refugees need friends.”
Groups unable to take on co-sponsorship can still help by hosting a fundraiser for IRIS, by collecting furniture to set up an apartment in New Haven or by considering volunteer opportunities posted on the IRIS website.
For those wishing to support refugees just now pouring into Europe and not yet in the resettlement pipeline, he suggests donations to Doctors Without Borders.
When Chris George speaks at faith communities and civic organizations around the state, he tells them that welcoming refugees is “our oldest tradition.”
“I tell them it’s as American as apple pie and baseball,” he said.
“You want to see the American Dream in action? Visit my office.
“Sixty percent of new businesses are opened by immigrants. Immigrants are an injection of strength and ideas into our economy.”
On the topic of refugee resettlement as a politically charged issue, with some suggesting that no refugees be allowed in until every American already here is fed, clothed and housed, Mr. George said, “based on what I’ve seen, we can do both.”
“It’s a false choice,” he said. “It’s not one or the other. For every refugee resettlement agency, there are a thousand nonprofits that help the general public.
“Don’t tell me for a minute that Connecticut can’t help our citizens and also have a strong refugee resettlement program.
“We can do both. We have to do both.”
Those seeking additional information may call Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services at 203-562-2095 or visit www.irisct.org.