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Refugees From Nepal Moving To The Valley
by Jodie Mozdzer Gil | Mar 3, 2010 6:59 pm
As a family of Nepalese refugees made their way to the heart of the Valley Wednesday, seven church women cooked.
They gathered at the Oxford home of Linda Mileski to whip up enough vegetable curry and jasmine rice to satisfy the Nepalese family members on their first night in their new home.
The routine will play out several more times, as several more displaced refugees from Nepal are brought to Ansonia and Derby over the next few months.
Of about 22,000 Nepalese refugees being resettled in America by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, about 10 families will end up in the Valley this spring.
The hot meal of familiar food is a small token from the members of the First Congregational Church of Ansonia, who are acting as a welcome wagon for the new families. They are starting over in America after spending almost 20 years living in refugee camps on the eastern border of Nepal.
The International Institute of Connecticut, a non-profit refugee agency based in Bridgeport, will help their transition to America over the next several months.
“These are people who did not ask to be kicked out of their country,” said Sharon Mackwell, the institute’s executive director. “They want a chance to start life anew. And the international community concurs. These are individuals worthy of being resettled.”
The refugees have been living in camps in eastern Nepal for almost 20 years, according to the UNHCR. They arrived in Nepal after fleeing ethnic tensions in Bhutan in the early 1990s.
The UNHCR is helping resettle the refugees in the United States, Canada, Australia, Norway, Denmark, New Zealand and the Netherlands.
America has received about 22,000 refugees so far, but has said it would consider resettling at least 60,000, according to the UNHCR.
At the end of 2009, about 86,7000 refugees remained in the camps, according to the UNHCR.
“The world community is sensitive to the fact that these people are being warehoused,” Mackwell said.
The UNHCR hooks up with local organizations, such as IIC in Bridgeport, to help make sure the refugees have support for their first several months in the United States.
“It is a carefully and strictly controlled program,” Mackwell said. “We work with numerous governmental and non-governmental organizations. Our job is to help them resettle. Get them up and running with jobs, do case management. . . Our job is to really get them, by six months after arrival, self-sufficient.”
The assistance for the refugees is paid for through several sources, including the federal and state governments and the IIC.
IIC offers intense assistance at first, but slowly reduces the amount of aid it gives the refugees. After six months, the families are essentially on their own, Mackwell said.
Before the families come, Mackwell is reaching out to community leaders to fill them in on the process and ask for support.
She said she wants to work with the Human Relations Club at the middle school and the high school in Ansonia to see if the students will help mentor the new families in school. Mackwell has met with school leaders to reassure them that case workers will be available if there are any problems with the refugees at school.
IIC might draw resources from local service organizations, such as TEAM, as they get the families settled, Mackwell said.
Why The Valley?
IIC has resettled refugees in Connecticut before, Mackwell said. Through experience, the organization has determined that a big city like Waterbury or Bridgeport is not always the best place for resettlement.
“They were just not good places for refugees,” Mackwell said. “We were looking for a small town feel.”
The Valley had that feel, but also still had lots of access to public transportation to allow the refugees to commute to work in Waterbury, Bridgeport and New Haven. And the apartments in the area are affordable – which is a must because the refugees will likely be getting low wage jobs at local restaurants.
“They’re not taking jobs from Americans. The reality is somebody who lost his job at Sikorski isn’t going to flip hamburgers or be a bus boy at an Indian restaurant,” Mackwell said. “They’re doing the jobs that, even today, most Americans would really rather be on unemployment than take.”
And because they were invited to America to live, the refugees are taxpaying residents.
This is the first time IIC has resettled families in the Valley, and it is setting up a satellite office in Derby to help oversee the process.
One political leader in Ansonia is concerned that having the families relocated here will mean more strain on already tight resources in town.
“Why was Ansonia, when we need so much help here ourselves, why was this picked as a place to bring other people who need help?” said Republican Town Committee Chairwoman Joan Radin. “I don’t understand how you can bring people into an area where people are already depressed.”
Radin said she isn’t against helping people, but she’s concerned that valuable job training programs would be directed toward the refugees instead of Valley residents.
Radin is also concerned that the children in the families will put a strain on the school system, which is already struggling to meet state demands for student achievement levels.
“I think it’s wonderful to help people — don’t get me wrong,” Radin said. “But when you’re already in a position when you can’t help anymore, what do you do?”
The families are expected to have about 20 to 30 school-aged children with them, Mackwell said.
School officials are preparing for the students in the English Language Learners program, which is a program for students who are not fluent in English. It’s unknown how much English the Nepalese students may know. The district will test them when they come in. (The UNHRC has some English classes at the camps in Nepal.)
There are 85 students in the ELL program this year, according to Fran Adjei, the district’s language arts consultant who oversees the program. That’s an increase from last year, when 73 students were enrolled in the program. They speak 26 different languages.
At the same time the numbers increase, budget cuts have reduced the staff in the program from four full time people to two and a half positions.
“Mathematically, there is a need,” Adjei said. “We do have deficiencies. We do have needs. Clearly, you can’t do as much as you’d like to.”
But, Adjei said, the district is preparing to help the students acclimate to their new home. They will pair the students up with buddies and will have donated school supplies to give the new students.
“We are receiving them as we would any other student that walks into the district,” Adjei said. “We are eager to have them join our community and welcome them as all students should be welcomed in any district.”
Superintendent Carol Merlone said there were some initial concerns, such as translators for parents and past school and medical records for the students.
Merlone said she has met with IIC representatives who have answered some of the questions.
“We wanted to make sure our buildings, our principals and our teachers were aware so the child makes a smooth transition in,” Merlone said. “It’s a whole new thing. It must be devastating coming to a new country.”
Despite the concerns and the obstacles, the refugee group and several community members said they believe they have a duty to help the families.
Eveland, the pastor at The First Congregational Church in Ansonia, said bringing the refugees here is a good, Christian thing to do — it’s also the American thing to do.
“I see two mandates,” Eveland said.
“The Christian mandate is: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” Eveland said, quoting the Bible verse from Matthew 25:31-46.
“The other mandate is quite simple,” she said, quoting the inscription on the base of the Statute of Liberty. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
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