UCC body gives $100K to help Connecticut communities welcome Afghan refugees
The Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ has approved a grant of $100,000 to a Connecticut agency that, in the span of a month, took in more than 200 people who had escaped Afghanistan. Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services expects to take in up to 500 more refugees in the next 6 to 9 months.
IRIS’s mission is to help refugees and other displaced people establish new lives, providing housing and other basic needs, career counseling and training, and help navigating the medical, educational and legal systems. IRIS co-sponsors families with community organizations, such as churches and synagogues. Over the past 20 years, IRIS has partnered with more than 30 UCC congregations across Connecticut.
“This grant from the SNECUCC will provide IRIS the resources needed to rapidly bring communities of diverse backgrounds together to support welcoming Afghan families to their own towns,” said Ann O’Brien, IRIS director of community engagement. “Thousands of Connecticut residents want to show Afghan evacuees that America cares deeply for their pursuit of democracy, peace, and their ability to educate women in their society. This grant allows them to do this through IRIS’s community co-sponsorship program.”
Funded from a bequest
The source of the grant is a bequest given to one of the founding organizations of the Conference, the Missionary Society of Connecticut, by the Rev. Harry Baldwin in 2017. Baldwin’s bequest stipulated that the funds support interreligious programs held in cooperation with local churches “to provide education and service ministries in the prophetic tradition.”
“The Restricted Gifts Committee of the Conference could not imagine a more worthy recipient of Reverend Baldwin’s gifts than IRIS as it has sought to respond to the crisis of emergency evacuees from Afghanistan,” said the Rev. David Taylor, a member of the committee and pastor of the First Church of Christ, Congregational, in Glastonbury, Conn. “The ‘prophetic tradition’ which Reverend Baldwin cites is clear: ‘Do not oppress the widow or the orphaned, the foreigner or the poor.'”
Taylor said the community sponsorship model of welcoming and settling refugees is so effective that it is being recognized and replicated nationwide. His own church has worked with IRIS and its predecessor body for decades, serving as a sponsoring congregation for people from Syria, Iraq, Bosnia, Vietnam, the Congo and Afghanistan.
‘Part of what we do’
Another UCC church in town – the Congregational Church of South Glastonbury – is expecting to welcome an Afghan family any day now.
Mike Chernovetz, a member of South Church, has been leading the most recent effort there. The congregation has raised $7,000 so far, he said, and has begun paying rent on a three-bedroom apartment. They are prepared to pay for groceries, utilities and other essentials while they help the family settle in and get on their feet.
“We’re a mission-based church,” he said. “This is part of what we do. Some people will ask ‘why aren’t you helping the people under the bridge?’ We do a lot of that too. But these people have the hardest situation in the world.”
Chernovetz said the congregation has a team of about 20 people ready to help the family with securing employment, getting children enrolled in school or child care, and connecting them with other services in the area. He said the IRIS program calls for the church to co-sponsor the family for a year, by which time they are expected to be self-sufficient.
Five years ago, his church co-sponsored a Syrian family. The father now works for Amazon, he said, and the family is doing well. Although the church no longer financially supports them, they stay connected, and regularly invite church members to their home for Syrian food.
Even when a congregation is not in a position to fully co-sponsor a family, IRIS often calls on them to help in other ways.
Bikes, tutoring, paperwork
John Dugan, a member of First Church Glastonbury, said he has an email list of volunteers at the church ready to respond to requests. For example, he said, an Afghan family that settled in Hartford needed bicycles to get back and forth to school. He was able to secure a donation of five bicycles and meet up with the family to deliver them. They also sometimes help with paperwork, he said, such as helping the family get a waiver from a college requirement that their student live on campus, something the family could not afford.
“One of the problems with the families coming in now – typically the father will have been a translator for the Army or the Navy, so they speak English, but the moms don’t,” Dugan said. “So a group of our folks are tutoring one of the Afghan moms in English.”
“These are people who have been in desperate straits, and they need help,” he said. “They’re here because they’re fleeing persecution. They’re in dire straits, they’re really nice people, they need so much help in so many different ways.”
A proven path
Taylor said IRIS gives churches and other organizations a proven path for helping immigrants, something that would be difficult for them to do on their own.
“For each sponsorship, IRIS has provided the guidance,” he said. “While each family of refugees is different – knowledge of the English language, size of family, skills for various occupations, familial connections to previously settled refugees – each has had a desire to provide for the family a happier, safer and more secure place to live, particularly for their children.”
“Over many, many years, IRIS has been a true partner with First Church in heeding the prophetic call to ‘welcome the stranger,’” he added.
Tiffany Vail is director of media and communications for the Southern New England Conference.
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