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Local citizens welcome Afghan refugee family under community-focused resettlement model

Mark Pierce
Camila Vallejo/Connecticut Public
/
Connecticut Public
Mark Pierce is the leader of The Valley Stands Up. The civic group will help resettle an Afghan refugee family in Middletown this year.

Dr. Mark Pierce, 72, has always been drawn to humanitarian work. Now that he’s retired from his medical practice, he says, it’s no different. So when he saw an opportunity to support immigration in his Middlesex County community in 2016, he joined with other like-minded residents and formed The Valley Stands Up. This year, the civic group is resettling it’s first Afghan refugee family in Middletown.

The group has over 30 volunteer members from New London to Meriden. Pierce said each person brings something different.

“We are a varied group in background. We have quite a few retired teachers, social workers, physicians, lawyers, business men and we have a group of veterans.”

The resettlement project is part of a larger effort organized by Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services or IRIS -- a longstanding New Haven-based resettlement agency. In addition to traditional resettlement, the agency has adopted a model known as ‘community co-sponsorship,’ or CSS. It taps into community groups to help agencies like IRIS do the welcome work associated with resettling.

IRIS trains, educates and delegates most resettlement tasks to the community group. Each group is closely screened and IRIS lays down certain requirements before handing over the official sponsorship title. An ideal team must consist of over 30 members, be able to raise at least $6,000 to support the family and for the first two months after the family arrives, must be available as a collective to dedicate about 40 hours a week to their transition. Once a family is assigned to the group, much like a resettlement agency, the group becomes part of the family’s day-to-day lives.

For the next year or so, the community group becomes the arriving family’s main support. They prepare housing arrangements in advance, drive family members to appointments, help enroll their children in school and more. The goal is to help the family until they can become fully independent.

The Valley Stands Up expects to welcome a family of up to six people and has been preparing for the last few weeks.

“We found a beautiful three bedroom apartment. It's a second floor apartment in Middletown. We scrubbed the walls, we painted, we furnished the apartment, filled the pantry and made it available for when the family arrives,” said Mark Pierce. “The landlord had received 40 applications for this apartment and when he heard it was for a refugee family we jumped the queue.”

Pierce said most members in his group don’t have experience with refugees, but are committed to doing their part.

“We’re super excited,” said Pierce.

Chris George, Executive Director of IRIS, said the ‘community co-sponsorship’ model has been a success for the agency since 2016. It helps garner public support for refugees and simultaneously allows agencies to boost resettlement numbers.

“Why not involve public citizens in this great work?” George said. “We cannot just work under the radar providing services for refugees, we being the staff of nonprofit groups across the country. We need to swing open the doors and invite our volunteers and the community. This is possible even where there aren’t resettlement agencies.”

After Afghanistan fell under Taliban rule in mid August, IRIS has been receiving a large influx of refugees. And the agency is not alone. The U.S is expected to resettle almost 40,000 Afghans in the first wave.

“This country has welcomed more than 100,000 refugees in the past, but that 100,000 has been spread over 12 months,” said George. “The challenge now is to bring 100,000 people into the United States over three or four months, and that's difficult.”

The answer to that influx can be community co-sponsorships, George said. IRIS currently works with about 30 groups in Connecticut under this model. If IRIS is able to form another 30, George expects Connecticut could resettle twice , if not more, the number of refugees initially expected.

The ‘community co-sponsorship’ model has also gained national attention. IRIS and the Valley Stands Up will be featured in an upcoming documentary by Welcome.US -- a national coalition supporting arriving Afghan refugees. The group is led by three presidential families: the Clintons, the Bushes and the Obamas.

Pierce said he’s been receiving calls from local health departments, schools and agencies offering their support to the family.

“This model gets local communities involved and hopefully increases awareness in the community of the refugee situation.”