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New Haven Independent

New Haven Points Way For U.S. Refugee ​“Welcome” Plan

By Paul Bass,

2023-03-15
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Paul Bass Photo IRIS's Chris George (at right in photo) with Gov. Ned Lamont and state housing chief Seila Mosquera-Bruno at 2021 Scranton Street event highlighting need for apartments for Afghan refugees.

New Haven’s refugee welcome wagon is becoming America’s welcome wagon.

New Haven’s wagon is driven by IRIS (Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services), the nonprofit that helps over 500 refugees from war-torn nations resettle in the state each year. IRIS has pioneered a process that enlists over 1,000 volunteers in the community who train to become ​“sponsors” of families arriving here, helping them find apartments, jobs, training, schools, and solutions to everyday problems.

The U.S. State Department has tapped that model to create a new program called Welcome Corps” to enable groups of volunteers in the majority of states without agencies like IRIS to do the same work helping refugees resettle in their communities.

The State Department has tapped IRIS as one of the five agencies to conduct the training for volunteers in those other states to become sponsors of arriving families.

IRIS has already begun remote training of sponsors in Ohio, Wisconsin, and California in the program’s opening two months, according to Executive Director Chris George.

“It’s the most important innovation in refugee resettlement in 40 years. It’s a game changer,” George said during a conversation Tuesday on WNHH FM’s ​“Dateline New Haven” program.

“Up until now, if you were a volunteer and wanted to participate in welcoming refugees, you had to find a refugee resettlement agency that welcomed volunteer involvement, like IRIS. But not every refugee agency in the country believes that volunteers can do a really good job of resettling refugees.”

The name ​“Welcome Corps” riffs on the Peace Corps, in which George worked from 1977 – 9. The work sent him to refugee camps. He has pursued the same mission building IRIS as a national model since taking the helm of the nonprofit in 2005.

The work of everyday New Haveners and New Haven churches and synagogues in helping IRIS resettle families hash helped build a culture of support for refugees here. George predicted that Welcome Corps will similarly impact public opinion. He said he knows of ​“no better way to get people enthusiastic about refugees than to actually swing open the doors, invite them in to do the work. It’s going to dramatically increase public support, which is going to translate to political support for refugee resettlement.”

Click on the above video to watch the full conversation with Chris George on WNHH FM’s Dateline New Haven. Click here to subscribe to Dateline New Haven” and here to subscribe to other WNHH FM podcasts.

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Chris George at WNHH FM.
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