HAGERSTOWN – Refugees already facing a chilly reception here will have to fend for themselves as the resettlement group that brought them to town reduces services and eventually closes down.
The Virginia Council of Churches and others say they’re not worried: The refugees are self-reliant, so closing the council office should have little impact on the newly resettled.
“Typically the refugee families are pretty much self sufficient,” after a few months, said Dave Jordan, executive director of the Washington County Community Action Council.
“I don’t know that it will be a tremendous detriment to families with the Virginia Council of Churches being closed,” he said. “This may be me looking through rose-colored glasses. The crutch isn’t as necessary.”
The council, a Richmond, Va.,-based affiliate of Church World Service, provided case management and employment services to refugees for their first eight months in the country through funding from the Maryland Office of New Americans.
Church World Service is one of 10 national resettlement agencies working with the U.S. government to place refugees in American cities.
The council announced the office’s closure three weeks ago, amid community uproar about refugee resettlement in Hagerstown and after a Sept. 19 forum failed to assuage community concerns.
Hagerstown Mayor Robert Bruchey II said he was surprised by the announcement, despite several tense city council meetings where some members expressed resentment at the presence of refugees and fears that they would take away jobs from residents and use taxpayers’ money.
“It pretty much shocked me,” Bruchey said. “Everyone thought (refugee resettlement) was a waste of time, manpower and money. I didn’t see it that way.”
Neither did Mary Beth Alphin, interim program coordinator for the council’s Hagerstown office.
“I guess Church World Service made the decision that they did not want to battle the community members who were against the refugees being there,” she said. “I think for anyone to make a determination that bringing refugees into our town is a mistake is wrong.”
A Brookings Institute report released last year found that “in medium-sized and smaller metropolitan areas, refugees can have considerable impact on the local population, especially if the total foreign-born population is small.”
According to the 2000 census, 85.9 percent of people in Hagerstown are white. Blacks make up 10 percent of the population and Asians accounted for 1 percent of the 38,000-person community.
Washington County is home to 3 percent of the state’s refugees resettled over the five years ending in 2006, according to information from the Maryland Office of New Americans.
“Most resettlement occurs in the Baltimore-Washington corridor,” said Martin Ford, MONA’s associate director. “Compared to immigration context, refugee resettlement (in Hagerstown was) rather small.”
Many forum questions turned to the legal status of refugees, at a time when illegal immigration is at the fore of politics, and neighboring Frederick County recently failed to pass a resolution to deny services to illegal immigrants.
“In Hagerstown, people seem to confuse the refugee resettlement with the illegal immigration issue,” Ford said. “There are a lot of people who feel uneasy about refugees coming to Washington County. It’s something new and I get a feeling that it’s a tradition-loving area.”
Now, the refugees will have to access community services instead of going through the council, possibly using more taxpayer dollars.
As long as the refugees meet eligibility requirements set by the Department of Social Services, they will be entitled to assistance, said Rosalind Martin, assistant director for family investment in the Hagerstown office.
Plus, George Miller, the council’s former program coordinator, said he will reach out to refugees who may not know how to work the system.
“If they lose their jobs and they need help finding other jobs that could be a problem,” he said. “I’ll make certain that if that happens they can contact me and I’ll help them, even though it will be just as a volunteer.”
Refugees have been quietly resettled in the area since the 1960s, but it wasn’t until a language barrier caused police to set up a decontamination tent downtown in response to a Burundian refugee’s morning sickness, that the community took notice.
“Citizens who live in a community should have some say in the future of their community,” said Ann Corcoran, a Hagerstown resident who opposes refugee resettlement, in an e-mail.
“(The Virginia Council of Churches) arrogantly began the resettlement without any consultation with those who live here. Their entire resettlement program is paid for by the taxpayer so we should have been consulted,” she said.
By May, conditions were so unfavorable that Church World Service decided to not send more refugees to Hagerstown because there was enough uncertainty about community relations to make resettling there questionable, said Carol Fouke-Mpoyo, information specialist for the church’s Immigration and Refugee Program in New York.
“It turned out after all of the town meetings we had to say, ‘We really regret it but the Hagerstown office is not going to work,'” she said. “In our view the relationship between the office and community partners was really lacking.”
The Rev. Richard Cline of the council acknowledged that his group did not effectively communicate about the arrival of the refugees in the area.
“I don’t care what it is, what project or program you’re involved with, there’s never such a thing as too much information that can be provided about that program. Certainly more information probably could have been provided,” said the executive director.
The consensus was that there was a “lack of communication with the city of Hagerstown,” Bruchey said.
But perhaps there was more to it than that.
On Corcoran’s blog, Refugee Resettlement Watch, she wrote on Oct. 4, “I’ve been thinking, wouldn’t it be ironic someday if struggling Hagerstown became a booming town because it had rejected the multicultural/diversity-is-great myth. Maybe we could even sell it as a city that had old-timey redneck values; a sign out on the dual highway could read: ‘Welcome to the most unwelcome city in America.'”