The on-again, off-again travel ban made for a tumultuous week for the local refugee resettlement effort.
Church World Service, together with local volunteers, had been planning since last fall to relocate 80 refugees within a 50- to 100-mile radius of Poughkeepsie early this year. The Jan. 27 executive order barring travel from seven Muslim-majority nations for 90 days and refugees from all nations for 120 days (and Syrian refugees indefinitely) came just as the organization was beginning to resettle families— many of whom had left their places in camps and prepared to travel, booked their flights and sold possessions they wouldn’t be traveling with for extra cash. As of the middle of the following week, only one family had made it, because they’d made arrangements just before the deadline.
They were a family of five from the Congo who had spent six years living in a refugee camp of 20,000 in Malawi. They were met at Kennedy Airport and taken by interim director of the Poughkeepsie CWS office Roisin Ford and volunteers to a new home in Dutchess County. The father, Masumbuko, is a nurse; his wife Roza a seamstress. The family’s full name and whereabouts remains confidential, Ford said, in light of angry social media denunciations of the program in particular and refugees in general.
Ford’s relief and pleasure in the success of the family’s escape last week was colored by the knowledge that the fates of the agency’s other 75 local refugees were left in limbo, at best.
Ford, who is 34, has worked in resettlement programs for seven-plus years. Hers is a boots-on-the-ground perspective; she is overseeing the resettlement of the Congolese family, a task that includes the efforts of specially trained “welcome teams” based in several area Christian, Muslim and Jewish congregations.
“I wish everyone had an opportunity to get to know this family,” she said.
That was at a time when it appeared the CWS program would have to shut down due to Trump’s executive order. Ford’s voice was considerably happier Sunday morning, after a federal judge temporarily blocked key parts of the executive order.
CWS’s original plan is back on track, she said, pending further appeals of the court’s decision by the government.
Until a year or so ago, CWS went about its work without much public notice. Since its inception in the wake of World War II, it has resettled roughly 500,000 refugees from war-torn countries, helping to find new lives for them in stable countries like the U.S. Today it’s one of nine such non-governmental organizations that contract with the U.S. State Department to place refugees after they’ve been vetted by numerous government agencies.
Against the backdrop of Trump’s calls for a temporary ban on Muslims, first as a candidate then as president-elect, two public meetings last fall in Poughkeepsie were standing-room only, with some residents at the first meeting voicing their opposition to resettlement. In subsequent months, things seemed to calm down.
Meanwhile, volunteers and CWS moved forward with the plan. The resettlement effort has attracted several churches, faith-based organizations and colleges, with an estimated 1,200 volunteers, under the rubric of the Mid-Hudson Refugee Solidarity Alliance, a group begun by Vassar College students that has spread well outside Dutchess County. İlgü Özler, associate professor in the political science and international relations department at SUNY New Paltz originally from Turkey, is a member. She’s the founder of the university’s Global Engagement Program, which places students in prestigious internships such as the United Nations and Doctors Without Borders.
Özler said she remains hopeful that the country’s system of checks and balances will survive the Trump administration, but that “there’s a need for a vigilant watch on the executive branch.” Her concern is that technological innovation makes “so much information — and misinformation — move so fast that things can go sour very rapidly.”
Trump’s campaign proposals about withdrawing or reducing funding for the United Nations is particularly troubling to her, especially in light of the important economic role the UN plays in funding refugee camps around the world.
Rabbi Leah Berkowitz of Vassar Temple is a member of the Alliance. For her, the refusal of people to open their doors to the neediest among them is a familiar phenomenon harkening back to World War II, when Jewish refugees were denied entry to America, and a Biblical lesson that lies at the very heart of Judaism.
Berkowitz described the Biblical teaching in a blog that paralleled the plight of the Congolese family to the struggle of the captive Jews in ancient Egypt by describing the ninth plague described in Exodus:
“Unlike many of the other plagues, this one only fell on the house of the Egyptians,” she wrote. “The rabbis tell us this is not a physical darkness, but a spiritual one, ‘the punishment that awaits those who truly cannot see their neighbors, who cannot feel the pain and recognize the dignity of their afflicted neighbors.’”
This is a story, she wrote, that has recurred too often throughout history: “Too many times, we have drawn the curtains and shut off the streetlights, turned off the television and silenced the radio, so that we did not have to bear witness to our neighbors’ suffering, so that we would not be held responsible for our inaction.”
Inaction hasn’t been an issue this time around. A rally organized by the Bard Muslim Student Organization and billed as “No Ban, No Wall” drew hundreds to the Dutchess County Courthouse on Saturday, February 4. Three days before that, hundreds marched through the streets of Poughkeepsie to protest the travel ban.
On Monday, February 6, the Justice Department urged an appeals court to reinstate Trump’s travel ban, saying national security depends on it. The appeals process is expected to eventually reach the Supreme Court.
In the meantime, the local refugee resettlement effort continues.