Concord gets its first Syrian refugees; support group forms

  • Dunbarton resident Joyce Ray poses for a photo Thursday at her home. Ray helped form a support network for Syrian refugees who might end up in the area through the resettlement process. Two Syrian cases were relocated to Concord after the Paris attacks.  ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 4/29/2016 12:10:28 AM

Like many in her church, Joyce Ray was appalled last year by the images of Syrians washing ashore in Europe, some already dead from the journey, others broken by war and uncertain about the futures. So she resolved to take action back home in New Hampshire.

With the support of fellow worshipers, the Dunbarton resident and member of the United Church of Christ formed a committee, the Syrian Refugee Mission Group, and began building a support network for refugees who might end up here through the resettlement process.

But as she and others quickly learned, there were no immediate plans for Syrians to arrive, even as President Obama called for the welcoming of 10,000 new migrants in the coming year. States with more thriving Middle Eastern refugee communities were said to be targets for the first waves.

And governors in many states, including New Hampshire, said not so fast.

Now, as the mission group plans its first public event Saturday in Concord, some Syrians have already arrived and more could be coming.

Ascentria Care Alliance, one of two resettlement agencies working in the state, has relocated two Syrian individuals since the November terrorist attacks in Paris, according to Amy Marchildan, its director of Services for NewAmericans. One them immediately outmigrated to another state.

Two other Syrian refugee cases came prior to November and all four cases were relocated in Concord. Cases can include more than one individual. 

The recent arrivals surprised even Marchildan, she said, as her office had not planned on Concord becoming a site for Syrian refugees, at least not in the near term.

“They seemed to be outliers in terms of our caseload,” she said, noting that placements are decided at the national level. She added, “For the remainder of this year we’ve been told we may have some.”

Marchildan said she couldn’t go into detail about the individual cases, for confidentiality reasons, but explained that all the appropriate community partners were informed. The group plans to be more vocal about future placements in the capital region if and when they happen, she said.

Since November, 1,516 cases of Syrian refugees have been resettled in 33 states, according to the Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System, with Michigan, California and Pennsylvania receiving the most. That’s more than double the number who had arrived in the country as of February.

Manchester and Nashua had been pinpointed as probable first sites for Syrians arriving in New Hampshire. But so far the International Institute of New England, which resettles in both cities, has made no placements in either, according to federal data. President and CEO Jeff Thielman did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but said in February that the Boston-based institute hoped to place families in the state soon. It has already placed Syrians in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

The prospect of an influx in Syrian refugees became a hot-button issue last year after the Paris attacks. Nearly three dozen governors, including New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan, the only Democrat, objected to resettling Syrians until federal officials could ensure the vetting process is ironclad. But it’s the federal government that has ultimate authority over where refugees land.

“The Governor continues to believe that a temporary pause would have been the most sensible course of action, a course the administration chose not to take,” Hassan spokesman William Hinkle wrote in an email. “That being the case, she remains focused on the need to continue strengthening the screening process for all entryways into the United States.”

Opponents to Obama’s plan have argued that the influx will open a channel for terrorists to sneak into the country. Resettlement officials, however, note that the screening process is already exhaustive, taking up to two years to complete.

Ray was a vocal critic of Hassan’s pronouncement last year, reminding her in an open letter that “we must not let fear influence our ethical obligation in this humanitarian crisis.” She was referring to the Syrian Civil War, which has pushed more than 11 million people from their homes over the past five years.

Ray’s group, which meets monthly in Pembroke, hopes New Hampshire will become a refuge for some of those who have fled. They were unaware of the Concord cases.

The event Saturday, at First Congregational Church, is intended to spread awareness about issues Syrians will face when they do arrive, and ways people both in and out of the faith community can offer support. Royce said the group has heard interest from as far as Harrisville, where some residents want to donate knitted goods, and Littleton, where a Vietnamese family was resettled in the 1970s.

“We have to begin somewhere,” she said.

Included in the event will be a representatives of the Rhode Island Council of Churches, which has helped resettle three Syrian families in recent months, Royce said.

One family that arrived in February through Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island, the state’s largest resettlement agency, spent two years in Turkey waiting to receive refugee status, according to a profile in the Providence Journal.

The family’s patriarch, 33-year-old Hussein Mohamad Saleh Ghazala, told the paper he was required to make seven trips to the U.S. Embassy in Istanbul for face-to-face interviews before getting clearance. That didn’t include multiple security screenings, the last of which Homeland Security conducted in Chicago, the port of entry.

“People are people,” Ray said, invoking those Syrians still awaiting clearance. “And these people are in great need, and they just need a home, just like we do.”

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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