Overflow crowd gives mixed review of refugee resettlement plan

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Photo Gallery | Refugee Resettlement Program meeting

PITTSFIELD — An overflow, mostly civil crowd of 400 at the Berkshire Athenaeum Monday night gave mixed reviews to resettling 50 Middle East refugees to the Pittsfield area.

Hias, a Jewish resettlement organization, has identified Pittsfield as a relocation community for refugees — primarily Syrians and Iraqis — who've escaped their war-torn countries.

The initiative will be led by Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Western Massachusetts, working closely with local government officials, the Berkshire Immigrant Center and the Pittsfield Area Council of Congregations (PACC).

PACC president Rabbi Joshua Breindel moderated the nearly one-hour presentation which was strictly informational. Those with questions or concerns were asked to write them on index cards. The biggest concern was over properly vetting refugees for security reasons.

JFS New American Program Director Deirdre Griffin said the federally sponsored resettlement process is very structured and each refugee who is thoroughly checked out wants to live a peaceful life.

"The reality is the refugees who are coming are victims of violence," she said.

Those seemingly supportive simply applauded at times, but a few of the dissenters were miffed about the lack of a direct comment segment at the meeting or the resettlement idea as a whole.

"When are we going to have an open discussion so dissenting opinions can be heard?" one man shouted.

One women felt the meeting was moot.

"You're going to do it whether we want it or not," she said.

Nevertheless, dozens of people did hand in the green and yellow forms handed out before the gathering asking who can volunteer to help with the resettlement.

Griffin said about 50 refugees — 12 to 15 families with about 15-20 children — would resettle in the community, from January through September 2017 with the goal to help them assimilate into Western culture.

JFS has been a conduit for refugees and displaced people from other countries finding jobs in the Springfield area.

Worldwide, 65 million people 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.

The Obama administration has set a goal of 110,000 refugees landing on American soil during the federal government fiscal year 2017 that begins Oct. 1.

JFS plans to form a Berkshire Resettlement Committee and the organization is already laying the ground work to help the refugees find housing and employment once they arrive, 1-2 families at a time, according to Stein.

"We have already begun discussions with businesses about hiring refugees," she said.

Stein noted how Pittsfield is an ideal community for resettlement being able to offer healthcare, quality education, social services and jobs.

She noted resettlement won't take away from at-risk adults already in the community needing help getting back on their feet.

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.

Pittsfield was among those communities who welcomed the Russian Jews and resettlement supporters believe the city will do the same for the newest refugees. Count Rabbi Breindel among those with open arms.

"I have seen the desperation of refugees worldwide," he said.


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