Northampton set to become sanctuary for 51 refugees

By Danny Cordova

(Daily Collegian Archives)
(Daily Collegian Archives)

The city of Northampton is set to create a sanctuary for refugees from the Middle East starting as early as 2017.

The resettlement effort is a joint collaboration between the city of Northampton and Catholic Charities of Springfield, an agency that was approached by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Migration and Refugee Services to task them with bringing refugees to Northampton.

Both representatives of the city and Catholic Charities said Northampton is an ideal location for refugees because of overwhelming support from the community.

“What we have experienced over the last month is an astonishing outpouring of people from all kinds of places who want this to happen, and are excited about this happening,” Susannah Crolius, coordinator of outreach and research development at Catholic Charities, said.

Initial discussions of the resettlement project began in December when a resolution was passed unanimously that declared the city of Northampton open to the idea of providing sanctuary to refugees. About a month after the resolution was passed, Catholic Charities approached the city and offered to bring refugees.

The resettlement project was approved by the State Department in mid-August for 51 refugees to arrive at the city beginning in the federal fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. Catholic Charities is aiming to send the first two families to Northampton in January.

Northampton city council member Alisa Klein of ward seven is volunteering with Catholic Charities in order to prepare and educate the community of Northampton for the eventual arrival of the refugees.

While writing the resolution, Klein researched the economic impacts of refugees in cities in the United States and Europe. Klein discovered that cities that accept refugees experience a positive economic impact.

“When more refugees come, they fill jobs that other people might not be filling, they become consumers,” Klein said. “So all of that has the impact of improving a city’s economy.”

A concern that Klein has received over the past months from her constituency is that the city has a big problem of its own to address: poverty. However, Klein does not believe that the two issues are mutually exclusive.

“I think that we can welcome refugees and we can support them, and we can also be very committed to working on issues of homelessness and poverty,” Klein said.

Klein explained that the refugees will undergo an extensive and rigorous vetting process expected to take more than a year.

“It’s not like the United States hasn’t been very, very cognizant of people’s concerns about safety and so called terrorism,” Klein said. “And it’s doing a really in-depth job in vetting any refugees coming in the United States.”

Klein said safety net programs such as Aid to Familites with Dependent Children (AFDC)/ Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNA) – formerly food stamps – will be available to refugees. The city is looking for landlords who could provide renting space at below-market rates for the first year of the refugees’ arrival, as well as employers in the community to provide jobs and internships and also for people to provide transportation and orient the refugees. Catholic Charities will work on having refugees take weeks of extensive English lessons in order for them to be acquainted with vocabulary in the work force.

“[The resettlement process] takes people along the way, it takes educational processes,” Crolius said. “It really is that old saying ‘it takes a village,’ it really does.”

Mokhtar Malas, a University of Massachusetts senior studying biology, and also the Secretary of the UMass Arab Club, grew up in Syria and is optimistic toward the resettlement project.

Since the summer of 2014, Malas has volunteered with Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan. He spent his 2016 spring break in Greece to help refugees arriving in Europe. Based on his experience and the humanitarian atrocities surrounding the Syrian civil war, Malas said that the United States should do more to aid refugees.

In Lebanon, Malas worked with children, some of whom had lost their parents and were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“They’re very innocent children who left the country to find a safer place to get a decent education,” Malas said.

Malas believes that Middle Eastern countries neighboring Syria that accept refugees lack essential resources, like health care and education, to adequately satisfy the overwhelming numbers of refugees.

Malas also said that Northampton is an appropriate location for refugees citing the city’s openness to diversify the community, as well as Arab communities in Springfield and Holyoke which could help make refugees feel welcomed. Even by walking the streets of Northampton and reading signs on stores saying “Refugees are welcome” and “Coexist,” Malas said he is certain that refugees will be able to call Northampton home.

Danny Cordova can be reached at [email protected]