Against the backdrop of a presidential contest whose victor has proposed banning immigration from Muslim countries, a plan to resettle approximately 80 refugees throughout the Hudson Valley has drawn intense interest.
A group called the Mid-Hudson Refugee Solidarity Alliance is sponsoring the effort to resettle refugees from the Middle East and Africa, which will be administered by the refugee resettlement organization Church World Services [CWS]. Those sponsors include Vassar College, SUNY New Paltz, Dutchess Community College, Mount Saint Mary College, Bard College, Vassar Temple and Christ Episcopal Church in Poughkeepsie, Masjid al-Noor Mosque in Wappingers Falls, as well as the Dutchess County Interfaith Council and the Greater Newburgh Interfaith Council.
The refugees will be settled within a 100-mile radius of Poughkeepsie.
Groups like CWS often work in this manner with local partners, and generally resettlement of a relatively small number of refugees over an area of this size wouldn’t draw much attention. This time it’s different. The idea of terrorists posing as refugees, often likened to a Trojan horse on a grand scale, has stoked fears and moved polls in the U.S. and Europe. Twenty-six state governors have said they won’t accept Syrian refugees. Locally, the two meetings organized in connection with the resettlement effort have drawn standing-room only crowds.
The first, held at Vassar less than 48 hours before the polls opened, was tense, with some opponents raising their voices and storming out. The second, which was moved to Poughkeepsie’s Christ Episcopal Church after it became clear a previous venue wouldn’t accommodate the expected attendance, was held two days after the election, and was more restrained. Officials emphasized the level of scrutiny refugees receive over the extensive bureaucratic process by which they are identified and processed for resettlement. Their primary concern was to allay the fears and questions of residents who had criticized the organization for providing short public notice of the planned resettlement.
What follows is a summary of the group’s history and the resettlement process outlined by CWS’s senior director of services Sarah Krause and the group’s executive director Erol Kekic before a crowd of several hundred.
CWS was created in 1946 in the aftermath of World War II. It mission was simple: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, comfort the aged and shelter the homeless. Since its earliest days, CWS has resettled nearly half a million refugees.
According to a fact sheet provided by the group, CWS is one of nine refugee resettlement agencies in the U.S. The federal government contracts with these agencies to resettle refugees and help newly arrived refugees rebuild their lives and become self-sufficient.
“We are facing the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II,” Krause told the crowd. More than 65 million people worldwide have been forcibly displaced from their homes because of war, violence or persecution; 51 percent of them are children. Last year alone, an average of 24 people were forced to flee every minute, she said.
Krause and Kekic were at pains to describe the intensive vetting process candidates for resettlement must undergo before they qualify for relief.
In essence, Krause told the crowd that though there was overwhelming need, those refugees who eventually make it to the U.S. are a “select few.” She also sought to humanize those refugees as ordinary people, mostly families whose lives have been utterly disrupted and who, given the chance to relocate, would ultimately contribute to their new communities through the same sort of industriousness that all immigrants have brought to the country over the years.
According to Kekic, it can take as many as 10 years to relocate a refugee; in the case of young children, it’s not unusual for them to have no memory of their home country.
He said communities such as Utica that had welcomed large numbers of refugees had been “transformed” by the experience.