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While politics on the national level may have taken over many headlines in recent weeks, an international crisis is still being watched by many people around the world.
A small but growing group of people in Newtown are still watching the humanitarian crisis that has been unfolding overseas in recent years. In particular, these people have been touched enough by the Syrian refugee crisis that they have decided to do something about it.
Rick Chamiec-Case and Gordon Williams are serving as the chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of a local group that is planning to help a refugee family from the Middle East or Africa become resettled in the Newtown area. The group — Interfaith Partnership for Refugee Resettlement (IPRR) — has developed out of a common interest among a growing number of members of Trinity Episcopal Church, of which Mr Chamiec-Case is a member, and Newtown Congregational Church, of which Mr Williams is a member.
The two men sat down recently to tell The Newtown Bee about the project, and their shared hope that more people in the area will join the humanitarian effort.
“We’d like to help support a family that has been displaced because of war, oppression, or fear for their lives,” said Mr Chamiec-Case. “We would like to help them settle, and give them hope, compared to the place they left.”
One of the first things they pointed out was that while the group was born by members of Trinity and NCC — and has also gained representatives from Al Hedaya Islamic Center, Baha’i Community, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — the project is open to “anyone who wants to participate,” Mr Chamiec-Case said. “While we have been organized by faith communities, we are not restrictive.”
It is more important to help refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people than to worry right now about anyone’s religious beliefs, they say.
“We cannot turn our backs on 20 million refugees,” Mr Chamiec-Case said. “These are people who are fighting for survival, for their lives. Families are separated. That just seems unconscionable.”
While that number seems incredible, National Public Radio reported in June that as of December 2015, there were actually 65.3 million displaced people around the world, according to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees.
The local men know that the IPRR effort may receive backlash from those who feel that the efforts would be better suited for those closer to home. They are prepared for that.
“There is enough charity for all,” said Mr Williams. “There is enough goodwill for all.”
“We can also help local veterans, and children, and people who are abused,” Mr Chamiec-Case agreed.
IPRR is working with Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS), a refugee resettlement organization based in New Haven. It is the Connecticut affiliate of Episcopal Migration Ministries and of the Immigration and Refugee Program of Church World Service. In partnership with the US government and many nongovernmental donor agencies, IRIS has regularly settled approximately 200 refugees each year. Mr Chamiec-Case has been told that number may double this year.
Mr Williams had his first experience with IRIS in October, when he attended a program at Newtown Congregational Church that was presented by the local unit of Church Women United. The guest speaker that evening was Chris George, the executive director of IRIS.
“He spoke that evening, for about 50 people who attended — and it wasn’t just members of our church who were there, who were interested in this subject,” Mr Williams said. “It was a very good presentation.
“It’s very Christian, and humanistic, what we’re all trying to do,” he added. “We hear about love and kindness. We’re just trying to live by those guidelines.”
A lot of work has already gone into organizing IPRR’s effort. Nine committees have been set up to cover the various tasks that must be completed before a family arrives in the area.
IRIS needs to see that housing has been researched, and then set up once the family is about to arrive; rides will be available for all family members when they need them (to and from classes, medical appointments, school, interviews, work, etc), and public transportation, if available, has also been researched.
“Transportation will definitely be an issue,” said Mr Williams. “We may need multiple drivers to cover the same timeframe each morning, afternoon, and evening. Multiple members of the family may need to go out in different directions, so we will need drivers for each direction.
“That committee will need a lot of people, even people who can help once a month,” he continued. During the first month after their arrival, the family being resettled will need to be driven to IRIS, in New Haven, between five to seven times.
While transportation will be an ongoing need for the first few months, other committees will have a defined end.
“The furniture committee will be finite,” he pointed out. “They will furnish the house or apartment, and they will be done.”
In addition, volunteers are needed to help the family become culturally oriented to their new home, and for any children to be enrolled in the appropriate school.
Volunteers are needed to help a family understand finances and budget their money. A Health Care Committee and Translation Services/ESL Committee has also been set up. One group will be responsible for researching and then preparing a meal that is familiar to the culture of the family being resettled, to be served upon their arrival.
It is a lot of work, and a lot of responsibility, but IPRR members have already been moved enough to step up to help strangers. Members of the local group have met with others who have joined similar groups based in Bethel, Brookfield, Southbury, and Wilton, and have listened carefully to their suggestions.
They are also relying on IRIS.
“Working with IRIS has given us hope that we can do this,” said Mr Chamiec-Case. “In addition, the application that we filed with IRIS showed them that we were serious and capable. We’re not just a group of do-gooders.”
Filed in June, the application Mr Chamiec-Case referred to challenged IPRR to provide much more than a contact name and phone number. IPRR members needed to spell out what types of housing is available in greater Danbury, including rental fees, crime rates, and diversity; public transportation options, access to English language classes, health care, school systems, where families can shop for their groceries and which markets accept SNAP/food stamps and/or EBT cards, cultural resources, disability resources, and worship options, among other information. By the time it was finished, the application for IRIS was nine pages long.
IPRR, according to its application, has at least ten volunteers that are serving as the core sponsorship team, or steering committee. Another 20-25 members from the two lead churches had signed up as volunteers for various aspects of the group’s work. More continue to join the effort.
“Besides the growing numbers and urgent needs of refugee families,” the group wrote to IRIS, “we believe it is a moral and spiritual imperative to assist those in need. We believe our group has the depth of skills and diversity necessary to make a resettlement successful.”
Another issue Mr Chamiec-Case and Mr Williams are already trying to head off is the idea that the refugees being brought into the area will be more than what they appear to be at face value.
“These people who are coming have been vetted, up to two years,” said Mr Williams. “Homeland Security and the United Nations are among the groups who have done the vetting process.”
Mr Chamiec-Case said he and other have already received some challenges concerning their efforts.
“There has been a little bit of feedback from some who have political reasons, or other reasons, for thinking we shouldn’t be doing this,” he said. “We probably have much consensus, but not all consensus.”
Another big challenge: the timeline.
A group can have almost everything ready to go — drivers ready to receive assignments, shopping locations defined, even those who are ready to cook — but there is also a point where groups can be put on hold. Everything can be ready to move, but IRIS may not have a family ready to be settled.
“Because of the way the system works,” said Mr Chamiec-Case, “you usually get only a few weeks notice before your family arrives.”
IRIS tells groups to scout out housing locations, but to not make any rental commitments until they are assured of the arrival of a family.
“Even if you’ve done your homework, you get a very small amount of time to prepare,” said Mr Chamiec-Case.
Nevertheless, the growing number of people volunteering for IPRR is still determined to do their research, find furniture (and then a storage space for it), and just be ready to go once they hear from IRIS.
“I have to say, even with all this, the focus is on ‘We can do this,’” said Mr Chamiec-Case. “We are not naïve. We know there are obstacles, but everyone is ready to roll up their sleeves, talk to others about what does and doesn’t work, and do this.”
How To Help
There multiple ways people can help the Interfaith Partnership for Refugee Resettlement.
The first is to volunteer time on one or more of the project’s committees.
There are committees formed for each of the nine areas IRIS requires coverage for. Openings exist on every committee.
The second way to help is through donations. Financial donations will help cover expenses to get a family settled, including a security deposit and the first few months of rent for their new home, furnishings, clothing, phone service, groceries, and other supplies.
Donations can be done by check, made out to Trinity Episcopal Church, with Refugee Resettlement on the memo line, and mailed to the church at 36 Main Street, Newtown CT 06470. Credit card donations can be done online, through iprefugeer.org.
Donations of goods and services are also being accepted.
The third option is to respond when IPRR begins hosting public fundraising events. While collections have been already been done at Trinity and Newtown Congregation Church, totaling more than $6,000 for the project, IPRR plans to raise additional funds over the next several months.
“You can’t do lots of things, but this is something we can do to help others,” said Mr Williams. “With enough people, and enough money, and baby steps, we can help save a family.”
For additional information or to volunteer in any capacity, Mr Case can be reached at 203-270-8780 or and Mr Williams can be reached at 203-405-6392 or email@example.com.
In addition, details and an option to reach the Interfaith Partnership for Refugee Resettlement group through e-mail are available at iprefugeer.org.