On Oct. 7, the second floor of the Students’ Building overflowed with community members gathered for a meeting of the Mid-Hudson Refugee Solidarity Alliance. The programming, which began with an introduction by Interim President Jonathan Chenette, included speeches by Vassar faculty and students as well as leaders of faith-based groups and representatives of resettlement agency Church World Services (CWS).
CWS is a national refugee resettlement agency founded in 1946 that, following recent approval by the Department of State, will be opening a new office in Poughkeepsie. According to their mission statement, “Church World Service is a faith-based organization transforming communities around the globe through just and sustainable responses to hunger, poverty, displacement and disaster.” CWS has 34 offices across the United States, and is one of nine resettlement agencies partnered with the Department of State; there are a total of 350 resettlement offices in the country. Through these agencies, 84,995 refugees were settled in the United States last year, only five short of the ceiling set by the President. In response to the current crisis, the threshold for next year is set at 110,000.
Chair of History and Faculty Mentor to Vassar College Refugee Solidarity Maria Hoehn, along with a dedicated group of students, spearheaded the College’s refugee movement last year. At the insistence of Christopher George, a representative of the Scholars at Risk network and the Executive Director of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, who visited Vassar, Höhn and her allies at Vassar reached out to the faith communities in the area, beginning with Vassar Temple and spreading to include the mosque in Wappingers Falls and Christ Episcopal Church in Poughkeepsie. At first they zealously pursued the idea of resettlement in Poughkeepsie, but soon realized how difficult it might be. “We were very, very naive of course. It’s not that easy. We soon learned of course that in order to resettle refugees you need…an agency that resettles refugees,” recalled Höhn. Last spring they began collaborating with CWS. “I really want to stress here that is was really our college and our local congregations that started this process,” she remarked. “This was not something imposed on us by the State Department….This initiative is a wholly homegrown, bottom-up, grassroots effort from our students and the good people of Poughkeepsie and the mid-Hudson region, who could no longer turn their eyes from all the suffering.”
VC Solidarity Student Coordinator for Refugee Resettlement Patrick DeYoung ’18, an army veteran, spoke about his experiences in Afghanistan, and shed light on those who served as army translators and who dreamt of brigning their families to America to pursue better education and employment. “Being involved with this project, for me, was a chance to help welcome people like that, to fulfill those promises we gave overseas to people who had helped us, to share the American dream with them. CWS opening an office is really the first step in fulfilling that promise and sharing our country with hopefully many many new Americans,” he remarked.
One of the themes of the gathering was the importance of cooperation between faith-based and secular groups to smoothly resettle refugees. Rabbi Leah Berkowitz of Vassar Temple, Reverend Susan Fortunato of Christ Episcopal Church in Poughkeepsie and Dr. Umar Ahmed of the Mid-Hudson Islamic Association each spoke about their religious affiliations and urged their constituents to take responsibility for the physical and spiritual care of the refugees. Some offered prayers, and Vassar’s Assistant Dean for Campus Life and Diversity Reverend Samuel Speers read a relevant poem. Speers wrote in an email after the meeting, “I’m inspired by the leaders of this collaboration— students and faculty at Vassar, along with our neighboring campuses in the Hudson Valley, working together with synagogues, mosques, churches and any other interested congregations and community organizations. This hands-on hospitality initiative is demonstrating what local communities can do to address one of the key social justice crises of our time–the worldwide displacement of peoples. The initiative is showing the way for what democratic social change can look like that is both fully secular and fully inter-religious.”
Senior Director for Programs, Immigration and Refugee Program at CWS Sarah Krause described the process that refugees will go through when arriving in the United States for resettlement. She emphasized that the process is rigorous and complicated, and that this country only accepts 0.5 percent of all refugees worldwide. She noted, “I think we have this perception that the United States and other, European countries are taking in the vast majority of the world’s refugees, and that simply isn’t the case. Most of the refugees from Syria are actually remaining in the region. In Lebanon, one out of every five individuals now is a refugee, and in Jordan, it’s one out of every four.”
The first refugee families are expected to arrive by the beginning of 2017. They will be settled within 100 miles of the Poughkeepsie office, in order to make the best use of the community support and resources available. According to Director of Eastern Region of CWS Roisin Ford, “The countries where most refugees that have been resettled in the US in the last year and that we anticipate over the next coming year [are from] are Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, also known as Myanmar, Somalia, and we expect that the population that will be settled in Poughkeepsie will be from these nationalities as well.”
One concern which a particularly vocal and outlying handful of community members voiced was that refugee support would redirect resources away from Poughkeepsie citizens. However, Krause and others assured, this will not be the case. “All of our members agree that we must be mindful not to abandon those who are already here, as we try to make a welcoming home to refugees fleeing war and violence,” said Höhn. Pastor Deborah Hafner de Winter left a message for all. “What can you do? What people have always done for people here in this country: provide a welcome.”