Update May 20th: Church World Service—thousands upon thousands resettled to Lancaster, here!
You know Lancaster—the home of the Amish. Not!
I’m going to tell you about one of my favorite testimonies sent to the US State Department two weeks ago for the May 1 scoping meeting to hear from “stakeholders” (that is government talk for contractors) on how many refugees and which ones to bring to the US in FY 2013. Obama will make a “determination” and send it to Congress in September where Congress will rubber stamp it just in time for the October 1st opening of fiscal year 2013.
But… before I tell you more about the testimony, a little background: In 2007, we in Washington Country Maryland were just minding our own business when several incidents occurred with new immigrants that got the attention of the authorities and finally the newspaper. We learned that the Virginia Council of Churches (Virginia! mind you) was resettling third worlders in Hagerstown (our county seat). Some of us just wanted to better understand how this was happening—WHAT WAS THE GOVERNMENTAL PROCESS that allowed a supposed non-profit from Virginia to drop off people in Hagerstown. Where would they work? Who was paying for this? Who was responsible for their health, their housing, their education?
To make a long story short, we had a public meeting for all those involved which included the primary federal contractor Church World Service (they subcontract to Virginia Council of Churches), our state refugee coordinator, and some representatives of the US State Department. The public asked a lot of questions—many were answered in let’s just say a not straightforward fashion. We were lectured about how we are a ‘nation of immigrants’ and probably not even two weeks later the program was closed in Hagerstown and we were labeled “unwelcoming” —I suppose because we asked too many questions. This is how this blog was born—out of annoyance with government officials who keep information from the public! (For anyone interested in more on what happened in Hagerstown we have a category, unused lately, here, in which we told our story in the early years.)
So how does Lancaster fit in?
We were told in 2007 that the majority of refugees we were getting were Meshketians (Russian Sunni Muslim Turks) who were originally destined for Lancaster, PA about 100 miles away. However, somehow there was a glitch in the plan for Lancaster (we heard a crime problem had cropped up) and that Church World Service (one of nine federal contractors who monopolize the program) had to quickly find a place to take the next batch of Meshketians. I think they just looked at a map and picked Hagerstown—fresh territory for refugee resettlement and close enough to Lancaster so the Meshketians could visit back and forth.
And, by the way, we heard that some Meshketians had homes to sell in Russia and were able to buy homes here—so were they even real refugees? Or, were we using this program (again!) for some foreign policy political reason involving Russia and Turkey?
Here is what Church World Service (CWS) told the State Department on May 1 (Oh, and by the way, CWS is the “crop walk” group, some of you may know them from participating in their fundraising project.—ed):
In the United States, communities, schools, religious congregations, and employers welcome refugees and help them integrate in their new homes. In turn, refugees bring their innovative skills, diverse cultures, dedicated work, and other positive contributions to their new communities, enhancing the quality of life for all parties. Refugee resettlement showcases the best virtues of the United States—community, opportunity, hard work, diversity, caring for one another, and courage to start a new life.
Now, here is what a citizen of Lancaster, PA says of Church World Service (I won’t publish the woman’s name, but apparently she has been trying to help refugees who are struggling in her community—in other words she is not a bigot and xenophobe like we are here at RRW!). This is not the first time we have heard of refugee volunteers trying to do the best for refugees and running into problems with arrogant resettlement contractors. For the record, I don’t know this woman. [Emphasis below is mine—ed]
From a refugee volunteer in Lancaster, PA:
Why do organizations like Church World Service make unilateral decisions on how many refugees get settled into an area?
CWS and Lutheran Social Services have settled at least 2500 refugees (that’s probably a low guess as they refuse to give out totals, but only list how many of one nationality that they have settled in a past year) in Lancaster in the past 3 years without any approval process required from our mayor, our city council or without any consultation with our school board. The city of Lancaster population is approximately 56,000. In the past 2 1/2 years, these two organizations, who have no accountability to voters… have made the population approximately 4% refugee. I help refugees here in Lancaster and I am aware that in the short term, they are a very heavy financial burden on the city. Surely it is reasonable and right for our elected officials to have some say in how many refugees are settled into the city within a certain time period?
I work with families, I see the neglect:
I work with three refugee families in an informal support system through the Unitarian Social Justice committee here in Lancaster. I work with refugees who are hard working, serious people. They will eventually be a great asset to the city. But in the short term, they are a great financial burden on the city.
Every member of these three refugee families arrived with health issues. Many continue to have serious health issues and use the free clinics for health care, for surgery, for extensive testing, for dental work.
Each family has one or more grandparents who are permanently disabled in some way and need financial aid and city services. [Elderly refugees may receive SSI even if they never paid into the system—ed]
Because of language and educational difficulties, earning power is low. In spite of their very low income, there are cultural issues, which lead the young women to marry early and start families right away and stay home with their babies. They do not work outside the home. I know this because… within a year… my three families, including newly married older daughters and married cousins who share the same buildings… had four new babies… and another baby is due this month. They are good families and the Nepali refugees are wonderful parents. But, each low income family needs government services and financial aid to insure that there is good food and good medical care for the moms and babies. It’s a significant cost to the community.
There are other cultural difficulties that present challenges and sometimes dangers for the refugees and for the city, which are not addressed by the two Lancaster settlement agencies.
CWS officially works with the families for 3 months but their orientations are neglectfully inadequate.
I could quickly list 10 very serious incidences of neglect by CWS, but to save time here, I will tell only one story and a few bullet points. Please contact me if you would like more information. I could write many pages based on my notes of the past 2 years.
The testimony goes on to report problems with the orientation of refugees, safety issues and bed bugs.
“CWS is dumping refugees on to the city”
Many Lancaster people that I talk with…who also try to help refugees here… use the word “dumping”… CWS is dumping refugees on to the city… taking a payment to settle the refugees and moving on to the next group of refugees who will bring in more money to pay for CWS salaries, office space and fund raising events. This is the impression of many compassionate, frustrated people here in Lancaster, who are then accused of being part of a racist or anti-immigration backlash. We are not anti-immigration. We are expending our own personal time and money and pressuring our churches to spend time and money, picking up the pieces that CWS drops into our community. We now want a say in how many refugees can be settle here.
[New readers, see this 2010 story from Greensboro, NC and see the same problem—local church volunteers crying out to stop the flow of refugees at least for awhile!]
The commenter then goes on to make recommendations and mentions the State of Tennessee’s efforts to get some local control into the program. How much do you want to bet the State Department won’t follow-up and ask her for her proposals. Nor is the State Department making any of this testimony available to the public. She needs to send her testimony to her Congressman and US Senators and ask that they publish it in the Congressional Record! The buck stops with Congress!