PITTSFIELD — By year's end, the city could be home to the first of dozens of Middle East refugees — if residents are willing to welcome them with open arms.
Hias, a Jewish resettlement organization, has identified Pittsfield as a relocation community for refugees — primarily Syrians and some Iraqis — who've escaped their war-torn countries.
The initiative will be led by Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts, working closely with local government officials, the Berkshire Immigrant Center and the Pittsfield Area Council of Congregations (PACC). Representatives of those groups believe Pittsfield is a perfect fit for the resettlement effort.
"This is an extraordinarily positive opportunity for the city," said Ward 6 Councilor John Krol. "We have a history of welcoming immigrants: the Polish community, the Irish community and others through the years."
The groups will host a public forum on Monday to outline how the federally supported refugee relocation works and what impact it would have on Pittsfield and surrounding communities. Rabbi Josh Breindel of Temple Anshe Amunim will facilitate the 6 p.m. meeting at the Berkshire Athenaeum.
Deirdre Griffin, director of the New American Program for JFS, says she's been getting calls from Berkshire residents wanting to help the refugees.
"Our phones are ringing off the wall," she said.
Krol, Griffin, the Rev. Peter Gregory of St. Charles Catholic Church, and immigrant center director Hilary Greene met with The Berkshire Eagle editorial board Tuesday to announce the proposed refugee resettlement program.
Griffin said about 50 refugees — 12 to 15 families — would resettle in the community, from December through September 2017 with the goal to help them assimilate into Western culture.
She said her organization has been a conduit for refugees and displaced people from other countries finding jobs in the Springfield area.
Greene has found the same enthusiasm in the Berkshires, with businesses eager to boost their payroll.
"We have employees reaching out constantly, asking for help," she said.
Griffin said 65 million people worldwide are currently displaced by natural disaster, civil war, religious and ethnic persecution; 21 million are considered refugees seeking a safe haven in Europe, the United States and other more stable regions of the globe.
She noted only 1 percent will be resettled, with the Obama administration having a goal of 110,000 refugees landing on American soil during the federal government fiscal year 2017 that begins Oct. 1.
JFS first began helping resettle Russian Jews being persecuted following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1989. The organization eventually moved on to helping other ethnic groups, with the Western Massachusetts chapter averaging 240 newcomers to the Pioneer Valley each year.
Despite the challenging political climate given the current presidential race and fears of terrorism, particularly from the Middle East, Griffin said the time to act is now.
"Whether there's an election or not, there are people suffering and dying [around the world]," Griffin said. "Actions of the U.S. government have created some of the [refugees'] situations."
Greene, Griffin and Krol said they realize there is a vocal minority who will vehemently oppose refugees moving into the Pittsfield area, but they hope a vocal majority will step up and back the humanitarian plan.
Gregory said he hopes people at Monday's forum will remain open-minded and check their biases and prejudices at the door.
"We're brothers and sisters together under one nation," he said, "and we should share our gifts with others."
Contact Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233.
If you go ...
What: Refugee relocation forum
When: 6 p.m. Monday
Where: Berkshire Athenaeum, 1 Wendell Ave., Pittsfield