It seemed like a witty thing to say in the aftermath of the mid-December ice storm.
Along with hundreds of people around the Capital Region, I had fled the house I live in when the power went off and temperatures inside began to drop below comfortable levels. I packed a suitcase with enough clothes for a couple of days and headed to the Sisters of St. Joseph Provincial House in Latham, which runs on a generator to ensure power for the nursing home floors.
I joked with the Sisters living there that I was a refugee from the ice storm.
Then I really thought about what I was saying.
At the very same time, we at Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany were preparing to start up a refugee resettlement program. We were going to be welcoming individuals and families who had fled not just their homes, but their countries. They couldn’t go back after a simple restoration of electricity and heat. They were fearful for their very lives because of their religion, their ethnic group, their political beliefs or their affiliation with Americans.
My light-hearted comments then sounded a bit stale. They sound even more inappropriate now, as I learn more about the plight of refugees a few weeks after welcoming three Iraqis and while awaiting the arrival of others.
Catholic Charities expects to resettle 60 refugees this year in Schenectady, Albany and Troy. Most of them will be from Iraq.
The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, another nonprofit organization, expects to resettle about 350, mostly in Albany. They will come from Afghanistan, Burma, Iraq, Bhutan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Freedom from fear
Refugees by definition have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Each refugee is screened and approved for resettlement through the U.S. government. They are legally eligible to work here and to receive social services benefits, such as Medicaid and Food Stamps, for a few months.
Iraqis generally are coming from the nearby countries of Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt, where they fled to escape the danger of shootings and kidnappings. They are tolerated in those communities, but they often don’t have the legal right to work or to access services.
The Burmese, the largest recent group of refugees in the U.S., mostly come from refugee camps on the Thailand border. They are escaping persecution under a repressive military regime for their political beliefs or membership in an ethnic or religious minority.
Some refugees come with college degrees, professional backgrounds and a working knowledge of English. Others, especially those who have spent years in refugee camps, never developed formal employment skills; they may not be literate even in their own languages.
Catholic Charities Housing case managers are responsible for finding the refugees housing, providing them with an orientation to life in the U.S., enrolling them in social services and English-language classes and helping them gain employment.
But Catholic Charities is turning to community and faith groups to add the additional supports that will make the refugees feel more at home here.
The First Unitarian Society of Schenectady, for instance, stepped up to “adopt” the first refugees, three single men from Iraq who arrived in early March. Members found a Schenectady apartment for the men to share, collected furniture and household goods, raised funds to cover the refugees’ initial expenses and coordinated drivers to take them to appointments.
Most importantly, they’ve provided warm hospitality. Members of the congregation, along with Catholic Charities staff, greeted the refugees at the airport and had a hot meal ready for them at their new home. They hosted a welcome potluck supper; they brought one refugee with a liking for classical music to a Schenectady Symphony concert; they enrolled another, who dreams of becoming a model, in a state University at Albany fashion show.
Other faith groups are now patiently awaiting the arrival of other refugees for whom they collected furniture and funds. These include Niskayuna Reformed Church, the Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany and the Black Catholic Apostolate/St. Joan of Arc/Sacred Heart Parishes in Menands/North Albany. Eastern Parkway and Faith United Methodist Churches in Schenectady and St. Madeleine Sophie Parish in Guilderland are ready to help as soon as additional refugee families who are to come to the area are identified.
Members of the Islamic Center of the Capital District have provided invaluable support with their Arabic interpretation skills and their experiences of the challenges that have faced Iraqi refugees already in the area.
It’s this interfaith, multicultural support system that will make newly arriving refugees feel as warmly welcome in their new communities as I felt when seeking a temporary home during the ice storm.
And I saw great promise for that in the welcome potluck last month. There, the three Iraqis mingled with their Unitarian hosts as well as with interpreters originally from Iraq and Egypt and members of a Colonie mosque who had immigrated from Pakistan, Tunisia and other parts of the Muslim world.
It was a hope-filled beginning for our real refugees.
Marianne Comfort lives in Clifton Park and is a sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.