New England Welcomes Refugees
When Mary and Bill Meroff of Dover, New Hampshire, boarded a train in Austria during their summer vacation, they never imagined the journey would intersect with the most significant humanitarian crisis of 2015. What happened next served as inspiration to partner with the International Institute of New England and welcome refugees to New England.
As they arrived at their seats on the train that day, the Meroff family met two young Eritrean refugee girls. Through broken English, hand signals, and a map, Mary and her granddaughter learned that the girls—like millions of other refugees from Syria, Iraq, and North Africa—were fleeing to Germany in search of safe harbor.
In a letter she wrote to friends and family, Mary recounted their final moment with the girls as German officials entered the train at the border and demanded passports from everyone:
"It quickly became obvious to us that the train was full of refugees. We realized that all these two girls owned was in two backpacks and two small plastic bags full of what appeared to be clothes. They retrieved them from under our seats and stood. It was then that I saw the terror on their faces. We attempted one last feeble effort to assure them that they would be all right and then they were gone."
Gone, but not forgotten. The family returned to the United States and began researching refugee resettlement agencies. Shortly thereafter, Mary and members of her faith community at BeFree Church in Dover scheduled a meeting at the International Institute’s Manchester site to learn how they could help.
BeFree Community Responds in New Hampshire
Each year, IINE resettles an average of 600 to 700 refugees across all three sites from countries worldwide including Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, Congo, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan. The Institute provides newly arrived refugees with 12 months of comprehensive support. Using federal funds and money raised locally, IINE helps new arrivals with rent, food, clothing, and transportation. Trained staff members arrange medical appointments, enroll arriving children in schools, and help adult family members secure employment.
In the fall of 2015, as the largest refugee migration in Europe since the end of World War II dominated the news, IINE experienced an increased number of calls and emails from residents wanting to assist displaced people arriving in New England.
“People see these world events and want to act, but it can be daunting because the crisis seems so large and far away,” says Cheryl Hamilton, Director of Partner Engagement. “We explained to callers that they can help by supporting refugees resettling in Boston, Lowell, and Manchester, and by letting them know that they are welcome in our community.”
BeFree Church was among the first to respond, and became the catalyst for Resettle Together—a growing network of community partners assisting the Institute in creating welcoming communities for refugees and providing immediate and long -term support to newcomers. The church sought a lasting commitment with IINE that included donating goods, services, and money, but also opportunities for its members to interact with refugees.
“When you’re bringing a group of people from a traumatic situation to a whole new environment, food and goods are important but incomplete without the human component; people who want to get to know them and be a part of their new lives,” says BeFree Church member Danah Hasaem .
BeFree leaders began by organizing an educational forum at their church on the current refugee crisis and refugee resettlement process. In the winter, they coordinated a large clothing drive in Manchester that drew nearly 100 refugees. In the spring, members gathered supplies for mothers who gave birth shortly after arriving in the U.S.
“Their work lives up to the mission of the church,” says IINE-Manchester Site Director Amadou Hamady. “They are representing our nation’s values of compassion and kindness.”
Partnering for Change
Since Resettle Together launched, the movement has attracted several more faith communities and community groups from throughout the region, bolstering the Institute’s resettlement efforts and creating a better environment for refugees.
“A newcomer’s experience is intrinsically tied to their experience with neighbors, fellow employees, and classmates,” says IINE's Cheryl Hamilton. “Resettle Together is a way to exponentially increase the spirit of welcoming in each community where we work.”
There are several opportunities for community partners to make a difference.
- Housing. The greatest challenge in New England resettlement work is securing affordable and appropriate housing. Partners are encouraged to solicit and share any leads on affordable apartments, and to help prepare homes for newly arrived refugee families. BeFree Church regularly collects household goods for refugees’ apartments.
- Employment. Under federal guidelines, all employable refugees must secure employment within 90 days of arrival, so job leads are incredibly valuable. Partners can brainstorm employment connections, escort refugees to job interviews, and volunteer for IINE’s professional employment preparation services.
- Community. Partners can organize events where host and newcomer communities meet each other, helping to welcome newcomers. IINE-Manchester Site Director Amadou Hamady recalls volunteers who drove new arrivals to see Christmas light displays in Manchester and Nashua. Volunteers escort and orient refugees to grocery stores and local bus systems.
Partners can also make donations that support transportation, cultural orientation, employment training, and English classes. The First Parish in Bedford, MA for example, donated money for the purchase of bus passes for newly arrived high schools students in the Lowell area.
“The integration experience of a new immigrant relies heavily on the economic support of our career and educational programs,” explains Cheryl Hamilton. “Every dollar we receive from the community helps us provide those critical services to newcomers.”
Your help will make a difference. To learn more about Resettle Together and to support refugees, contact Director of Partner Engagement Cheryl Hamilton at (617) 695-9990 or email email@example.com.