MULITPLE TOWNS IN CT (9/06/2016) -- Imagine flying to an unfamiliar country. You are greeted by strangers who drive you to meet more strangers, who then drive you to a place you've never seen and told it will be your new home. Everything you own, you are wearing. Imagine your children sleeping in the car beside you, too exhausted from fear and travel to stay awake. Your family's future depends on the strangers driving the car, the strangers waiting at the new home. You have no job, no income, no friends. You don't even speak the language.
On August 31, Mark Hand was one of these strangers, driving an anxious family of refugees to a duplex in Manchester – the family's new home.
"They were overwhelmed," Hand said the next day, as he returned the van rented to transport the family.
Hand is a member of the refugee resettlement team from Gilead Congregational Church. He and the team have prepared for months to greet this family. They collected household items, gathered furniture, found a rental space, and raised thousands of dollars in order to assist this family of five from Syria: a mother, a father, and three children ages 11, 10, and 3.
Before he left the family for the night, Hand, with the help of an Arabic interpreter, helped the family setup a cell phone with an emergency number, and showed them how to lock the doors. His team even prepared a culturally appropriate meal, which Hand is not even certain they ate. He left after an hour, prepared to return first thing in the morning.
This scene is becoming common in Connecticut. Six other families arrived in Connecticut the day before Gilead's family, according the Ashley Makar, Outreach Coordinator for Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Service (IRIS), an organization in New Haven that helps resettle refugees and prepares co-sponsor groups to receive refugee families. In all, IRIS received 120 refugees in CT in the month of August, and the pace will not slow any time soon. Makar says almost 500 refugees will be welcomed in the state by the end of 2016, and many of them will be welcomed by UCC church members.
More than 50 UCC Churches in CT are involved with refugee resettlement efforts. These efforts range from helping raise money, to providing the team of 10-15 people who will spend at least 40 hours per week in the first several weeks assisting the family. They transport family members to appointments, help with paperwork, provide meals, assist with language lessons, and help set up phones so they have someone to call if needed.
According to IRIS, a co-sponsor group is prepared to receive a refugee family when they have completed a full-day training, gathered volunteer commitments for a minimum of 40 hours of assistance for the first 6 weeks of the family's arrival, arranged adequate housing for the family, and raised enough money to subsidize housing costs for 6 months. That total can vary depending on housing costs in different areas of the state. Arranging housing is one of the biggest challenges, says Makar, because IRIS only gets 2 weeks notice about an incoming family.
"That's the maximum amount of warning we can give a co-sponsor group," Makar says.
That did not deter a co-sponsor group in Eastern Connecticut. The group, called Quiet Corner Refugee Resettlement (QCRR), has been assisting a family since July 21. QCRR is a large coalition of more than 30 churches and organizations in the region. A primary team of 10-15 people handles the day-to-day interactions. Jennifer Back, a member of First Congregational Church of Woodstock, is the communications person for the committee. According to Beck, QCRR has raised close to $16,000 so far and has a goal of $20,000 by December. The family is living in a rented house and doing well. They have been learning English and completed several administrative tasks such as obtaining social security cards and enrolling the two children in school. They even visit a local farmers' market every week with one of the volunteers.
"The language barrier is the hardest thing to address," says Beck. Though the group does work with a translator, Beck says it's difficult on a day-to-day basis to work through the language issues. But they are making progress. Beck even says the mother in the family may have some potential work lined up. She was a hair stylist back home in Syria.
Back in Manchester, Gilead's Mark Hand arrived back at the duplex by 11am on September 1. Knowing the the family would still be exhausted physically and emotional, he wanted to make sure the family had time to rest before attempting to tackle the necessary first day administrative tasks.
When he arrived, the family was up and active. They had swept the driveway, cleaned up the yard, vacuumed the apartment, and even put up curtains so the mother could remove her hijab while indoors. The children were excited to see Mark and show him their bedrooms. They had even picked up some English words in the few hours they had been in their new home.
"Seeing the joy and seeing them relax today was incredible," said Hand. He spent the morning working with the family and an interpreter, getting them prepared for their new life. He said it was one of the most rewarding things he had ever done.
But Hand knew that resettling the family was not going to be all happy children and grateful parents. On the way home, Hand stopped by the local police station to let them know that the family had moved in.
Drew Page is the News & Media Editor for the Connecticut Conference, UCC.