Refuge from the Storms

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Class of ’77 | The young Syrian family had flown into New York’s JFK Airport in late November, believing they would board a flight to their new home in Indianapolis the next morning. But the van driver who picked them up informed them that their destination was now Connecticut. Indiana Governor Mike Pence had announced that he did not want any Syrian refugees in his state, and local refugee authorities feared the family would have a rough time of it there. And so the young couple and their four-and-a-half-year-old child, who had been waiting to come to America from Jordan after escaping from war-ravaged Syria in 2011, found themselves on their way to New Haven.

Greeting them there was Chris George C’77, executive director of Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS). While the plane carrying the refugees was still en route to JFK, officials had called to see if IRIS could accommodate them on the fly. Without hesitating, George said yes.

“If you went to Hollywood casting and asked for a positive refugee family, this would be it,” says George, noting that for safety reasons they had requested anonymity. “They are photogenic, with the best sense of humor—warm, gracious, and forgiving. This is a family that will shine … and hopefully make the governor of Indiana regret his stance.”

As federal standards for refugees require, George and IRIS found the Syrians a place to live and a home-cooked first meal. Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy visited their new apartment—though without an entourage, as George had requested.

“I am happy that the governor here gets it—shows compassion and thoughtfulness,” says George. “It was a scene that represents all we work for. It was our busiest week of the year. We already had five families from all over arriving, but we would always stretch for one more who had fled for their lives. It is that important.”

 

Ever since he was an undergrad at Penn, George has had a keen interest in the Middle East. During his sophomore year he spent four months on an Israeli kibbutz, and after graduation he and his wife-to-be, Liz Webb C’76, traveled to Oman, where he had a Peace Corps assignment and she got an office job. Later, while working for the American Friends Service Committee and Save the Children, he spent many years—sometimes with Webb and their two daughters, sometimes by himself—in Lebanon, Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank.

In 1989, while working for Save the Children, he was kidnapped and held for 36 hours by a Gaza man who had a simmering dispute with the Israeli army. George, who knew the man well, was released unharmed. But the writing was on the wall. After returning to Save the Children’s headquarters in Westport, Connecticut, then taking a job in New York with Human Rights Watch that led to another posting to the West Bank, he was ready for a new challenge.

 

Since 2005, the avuncular George has been executive director of IRIS, which resettles 200 to 300 refugees each year, mostly in nearby parts of Connecticut. The refugees include many who have fled from embattled countries, and lately the Syrian crisis has been front and center at IRIS, one of 350 agencies entrusted by the federal government to resettle immigrants. The State Department recently upped the annual number of refugees it will accept from 70,000 to 85,000, and George is hopeful it can do more—even at a time when the national mood has turned against immigrants and refugees of almost any sort.

“In 1980, we accepted 200,000 Vietnamese refugees,” he says. “We can do that again easily. We are prepared to do our part.

“Despite what people think, the US has a well-established refugee resettlement program,” he adds. “We just want them to expand in this crisis.”

IRIS’s annual budget is $1.4 million, $800,000 of which comes from State Department contracts. Since his arrival, the staff has tripled to 24.

“We get an email about two weeks before a family arrives,” he says. “We find them an apartment and fill it with donated furniture. We stock the kitchen with food and meet the family, getting them settled that first night. The next morning, we get them started quickly: enroll the kids in school, start teaching them English and about American culture, connect them to healthcare—and help find them a job.

“It is a tough, demanding self-help program, and it has to be done quickly [so there is] no loss of momentum,” he adds. “These are not just people coming here to find a better job, but people in crisis. It asks a lot of the refugees, but the record is good—about 70 percent of those who arrive get jobs within a few months.”

Despite all he has seen, George is relentlessly positive.

“Yes, places like Gaza are far worse than when I was there, and Damascus was a beautiful city, which I know has had a lot of destruction,” he says. “But I see so many people here in Connecticut willing to help, and I know that if we get the go-ahead, we can help a whole lot more of those desperate people.”

—Robert Strauss
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