The whole wide world is tucked away in East Rock, up a set of carpeted stairs at 235 Nicoll Street.
Welcome to IRIS: Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, a non-profit humming with lilting sounds of Swahili, a heated conversation in Arabic, a little Pashto, some tentative English by an ever-rotating group of refugees and, of course, perfect English by the IRIS employees and volunteers working so hard to welcome and support them.
“Welcoming refugees is the best thing our country does,” says IRIS’s Executive Director Chris George on a typical busy day. “It’s our most noble and oldest tradition—as American as apple pie and baseball.”
A creation of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut, IRIS welcomed its first refugee family in 1982. Since then it’s received more than 5,000 asylum seekers whose stories create a mosaic of every major conflict of the past 30 years.
“Most people don’t know that the US government has an ongoing program that invites refugees fleeing persecution to come and start new lives here,” George says. “They’re forced to leave their countries, and sometimes their families, to escape danger.” Some suffer from PTSD; some were tortured or abused before coming to the US; some had to leave families behind.
IRIS tries to make the transition as painless as possible: refugees are always met at the airport or train station, taken to fully furnished and stocked apartments (with food, clothes and more) and, as required by the government, are fed a hot, “culturally appropriate” meal within two hours of arriving. “That’s a vestige of old American hospitality,” George says.
George, like everyone at IRIS (refugees included), works tirelessly and gracefully with few resources. “It’s a race against the clock because the US government doesn’t give refugees a lot of money,” and it’s only after refugees are settled that the real work begins.
IRIS welcomed a record 227 refugees in 2013. Mohammed and Reza, refugees from Afghanistan, faced danger because of their work as translators for the US military, arriving here in October and November, respectively. “IRIS has been wonderful, helping and taking care of us. You can’t know how appreciative we are,” Mohammed says. “It feels safe in the US.” Reza, like Mohammed, speaks solid English but neither of them has been able to find full-time employment. “That is the hard part,” Reza says.
Adel (pictured above, second from left) is a refugee who fled Eritrea and arrived in the US this month. Like almost all refugees, he’s looking for work so he can send money home to support his family. “I want to go to Alaska eventually and work in a fish factory. That’s where they say the money is.”
Refugees arrive legally at the invitation of the US, on track to receive a Green Card and eventually US citizenship. (IRIS provides legal support, with help from New Haven firm Stratton Faxon.) They take English classes and rely heavily on IRIS’s employment services and health departments. “Jobs are crucial,” says Employment Services Manager Will Kneerim. He and a team of part-time staff and volunteers help refugees prepare for interviews and advocate to local businesses. “We just ask them to consider hiring a refugee. They make great employees.”
The IRIS office is also a place refugees can come to feel like part of a community. On any given day, a bunch of them are hanging around after English class, drinking coffee, chatting about life and job searches and family. The office is also regularly stocked with volunteers. “We couldn’t survive without them,” George says. “Or without the many New Haven businesses and community members who continue to support us.”
Volunteers drive people to interviews and practice English with refugees. Donors offer money or used furniture. Businesses can consider hiring a refugee—joining Roia Restaurant, Chabaso Bakery, Sensor Switch, Cintas, Schick, East Haven Current Composites, Newport Hotel Group, and Yale and Quinnipiac Universities, among others.
“And come to the Run for Refugees!” says George. That’s happening Sunday, February 2nd, when an estimated 700 friends of IRIS will run or walk through East Rock Park in one of the organization’s biggest fundraisers of the year, then eat, drink, take in some music and meet some refugees at the post-race party.
“Refugees have had to overcome a lot but we understand what it takes to survive. We know how to work hard,” says Reza. “We all come to this country with big dreams.”
Written and photographed by Uma Ramiah.
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