Dinner With a Message

Sally E. Bahner PhotoThey came for the food and stayed for the message.

The small dining hall at the Shore Beach Union Church was full of those eager to try food from Somalia, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen at the International Dinner last week.

More importantly, the dinner was a benefit for IRIS (Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services), a New Haven-based refugee agency that serves Connecticut. The organization has been grappling with the fallout from the Trump administration’s executive orders banning travel from various Muslim countries.

Sally E. Bahner PhotoThe Short Beach event raised $1,500 and tomorrow Skip Ferry (pictured), the pastor of the church, plans to give the funds from the International Dinner to Chris George, executive director of IRIS. 

Sally E. Bahner PhotoAccording to organizer Nancy Orlando, church members made the food. “Everyone was assigned different recipes,” she said. And that included three different kinds of soups – shorba with lamb, chicken chickpea, and Iranian noodle and bean; sumac salad from Iraq; entrees – lamb kabob from Syria, beef stew from Yemen, chicken peanut stew, and spicy baked chicken from Sudan. Dessert was rice pudding with various fruit and nut toppings.

Dare we say everything was fantastic? It was a juggling act to savor the meal and chat with tablemates, many of whom came from the countries represented by the cuisine.

Sally E. Bahner PhotoA young man from Saudi Arabia, Mohammad AlMohsin (pictured), performed a musical interlude on a lute-like instrument. He is studying painting at Yale and is married to an America woman.

After dinner, the Rev. Ferry addressed the group, who moved into the sanctuary. He cited the book of Leviticus, which gives direction on the treatment of foreigners: “Love them as yourselves…”

Next was Chris George, the IRIS executive director, who said there are 21 million refugees in the U.S. and 350 non-profit refugee settlement programs. “It’s what makes this country great.”

He said he encouraged Washington to admit additional refugees, up to 200,000, but only 85,000 were admitted; 30 governors said no, but Gov. Dannel Malloy has been a staunch supporter “despite the Trump effect… the Connecticut support has been amazing.”

Sally E. Bahner PhotoGeorge (pictured) said that 60 communities have come forward throughout the state, which he said is “remarkable.” He said there are thousands of refugees along the Jordan-Syria border, and they are most vulnerable.

Extreme Vetting Outlined

George described to the audience a walk-through of the vetting process, one that’s already known to be extreme, using three people from the audience as an example.

The family was from Syria: the father owned a clothing store, the mother took classes at a local university; their daughter had witnessed the bombing of a neighbor’s house.

George said their initial interview by the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security lasted two hours. Information demanded included invoices, suppliers, courses taken, fingerprints for the CIA and DBI databases, and date and time of the bombing witnessed by the daughter.

After six months had passed, another round of questions was asked – some were the same, some were new. And more questions were put to the family after another six months, bringing the U.S. government’s vetting process to a total of 18 to 24 months. If there was any doubt along the way, the family was off the list. “It’s the most extreme in the world,” said George. “This is a tough process.”

The family then had to go through a health screening. They were asked if they had any friends or relatives in the U.S.; if not they were assigned to a location at random. The family also had to sign a promissory note to secure a loan for airfare.

Finally, George explained, IRIS gets notice of the family’s anticipated arrival and begins its preparation, which means collecting furniture and stocking the pantry with culturally appropriate food; a U.S. requirement stipulates that the family must have a culturally appropriate meal available to them within two hours of arrival.

In addition, George said that Yale-New Haven Hospital has a refugee clinic and arrangements are made for school, English classes, and jobs as soon as possible.

“This is going on all over the country,” George said. “It’s the Statue of Liberty in action.”

Immigration Ruling Aftermath

However, George said that all came to a crashing halt on Jan. 27, 2017, when Trump signed the executive order banning travelers from seven Muslim countries, which affected 218 million people.

George said there were two elements to the ban: a complete suspension of the entire refugee program and an end to Obama’s 2016 promise to the world and refugees that 110,000 refugees would be brought to the U.S. Trump dropped that number to 50,000, “a 60,000 drop in those who already have been vetted, leaving them in limbo.” 

In Branford, the travel ban was met with a candlelight vigil on Feb. 1 at the First Congregational Church. Nada Sellers, Designated Term Minister, said the vigil arose spontaneously through social media and various discussions.

“I talked with folks in town and legislators, and the International Refugee Immigrant Services in New Haven,” she said at the time. “It’s part of an ongoing investment in welcoming refugees.”

The church, along with St. Mary and First Baptist, was involved in sponsoring a family from the Democratic Republic of Congo last March; after settling in, they relocated to Houston five months later. Sellers, who attended the Women’s March in Boston, said that other families were “in the pipeline before they were shut off.”

The first travel ban (covering Libya, Sudan, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia) was placed on hold, which was upheld by a federal appeals court, and Trump’s subsequent travel ban, which dropped Iraq, was blocked by a federal judge in Hawaii. The Trump administration is appealing that ruling.

Despite the travel ban controversy, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents have been aggressive in some parts of the country in rounding up and deporting undocumented immigrants who have committed even minor crimes.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is confident that Connecticut won’t be punished for its stand on sanctuary cities although it is compelled to share information based on federal law. The state has also created a family preparedness plan for American-born children of undocumented immigrants in the event their parents are detained by ICE officials.

The Branford school district stands firm on preventing any kind of entry by ICE agents into its schools; all questions regarding the immigration status of students are to be directed to the superintendent’s office. Branford Police Chief Kevin Halloran said rounding up illegal immigrants is something he doesn’t see occurring in town. Under Connecticut’s Trust Act, local police won’t do anymore than is legally required to assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. 

Back at the dinner, George said that the State Department is gearing up to begin refugee admissions and is expected to meet the Obama administration’s goal of 110,000 by September.

So what can people do? George offered several suggestions. First he calls upon people to speak out against the ban; IRIS has issued a statement on its opposition to the ban.

He also suggested hands-on tasks such as teaching English, offering to drive people to appointments, and hosting education sessions and fundraisers. IRIS’s 10th annual Run for Refugees, held on the heels of the travel ban, had a record turnout and raised more than $200,000.

Immigrant rights organizations are planning a rally in Hartford at the state capitol on April 29. Rallies will be held in New Haven and other cities on May 1.

“It’s been a roller coaster,” George said. “Refugees are legal residents, but those who are undocumented are more vulnerable.”


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