The current refugee crisis coming out of Syria is the largest the world has known since World War II. In response, Bishop Fisher has asked me to be the liaison to the congregations of the Diocese in an effort to have a positive impact on the situation.
On September 28th I visited the Ascentria Care Alliance (aka Lutheran Social Services) office in Westfield along with some members of congregations in the Diocese or Western Mass. We met with Mohammed Najeeb, program director, and Marissa Lutz, faith relations manager for Ascentria.
Ascentria has a contract with Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM) to resettle refugee families that are brought to this country through EMM. Currently they primarily serve people from Iraq, Somalia, Bhutan, and have one Syrian family in their system. The major challenges Ascentria has in resettling families are finding affordable housing, transportation, English language learning, and acquisition of furniture in that order.
Once a family is registered with UNHCR, vetted, granted refugee status, and processed, the resettlement can begin. Ascentria then receives a two week notice that a family is coming. Sometimes it is only four or five days' notice. You can take refugees anywhere from months to years to get through the system and make it to a community in the United States.
Once families make it to Westfield, Ascentria will provide 90 days of case management, English language learning, nutrition counseling, help finding jobs, cultural orientation, help finding housing and furniture. They will also provide people to sit and talk to the arriving families in an attempt to create a new community for these new Americans.
Mohammed told us that the current situation is not like it was in the 1990s when churches sponsored families and there was little federal assistance available. Currently, new Americans get $1000 per family member upon arrival which gets used up quickly toward housing. There is also a monthly stipend based on the size of the family that provides more financial assistance, but that money is not sufficient and the needs are great.
The immediate need for new arrivals is for temporary housing. Once longer-term housing is found the need arises for specific furniture. Transportation is an immediate need and can come in the form of money for bus passes or gas cards as well as rides, at least for the first few days. People are always welcome to volunteer at Ascentria to assist the caseworkers and to provide, among other things, community for these new Americans to help folks get oriented to their new culture. People need to be welcomed.
Another area of need is in helping people find jobs. The challenges come around transportation, language barriers, and finding employers who will agree to hire migrant refugees. Do we know people in our networks who can provide job opportunities?
There are also long-term needs once a family has moved beyond the services provided by Ascentria.
We asked Mohammed when Syrian families will be arriving in Westfield. He told us they have been expecting Syrian families for the past two years. In other words, it is uncertain when, if, and how many families from Syria will be coming. But families from all over the globe are coming from challenging situations to Western and Central Mass through Ascentria Care Alliance all the time and our support is always needed and welcome.
Support New Americans- If you or a group from your congregation wants to volunteer and offer assistance with immediate or longer term needs please contact Steve Abdow at Diocesan House ([email protected], 413-737-4786, ext. 121) OR
For Worcester area churches contact Lisa Brennan at [email protected] or 774-243-3017
For Western Mass. churches contact Mohammad Najeeb at [email protected] or 413-787-0725 ext. 401