Open arms or closed doors? Protesters disrupt refugee meeting

Driven from their homelands by bitter circumstance, refugees may be seen as unfortunate victims to be helped and welcomed  — or as desperate strangers to be feared and walled out. The national debate erupted in Ridgefield last week.

“It was a difficult meeting,” said Michael Rettger, a co-chairman of the Refugee Resettlement Committee-Ridgefield.

The committee’s informational meeting at the library last Thursday, Sept. 15, was attended by numerous people who opposed the committee’s goal of bringing giving a refugee family a start in the U.S. by housing and supporting them here in Ridgefield.

Audience members questioned the vetting process, asked what supporting a family would cost the community and town taxpayers, and wondered why townspeople couldn’t vote on the committee’s resettlement project.

Emotions ran high.

“The people who were there on the object side were insistently vocal, not terribly respectful of us, or the other people at the meeting,” Rettger said. “We had to manage it pretty actively in order to let everybody have fair participation.

“People who want to get their point across can be pretty vocal, and it can be hard to get them to give time to others.”

Were they hostile?

“Hostile? They were certainly hostile to the idea of us settling a refugee family here,” Rettger said.

Ridgefielder Linda Lavelle attended the meeting and expressed her concerns to The Press.

“I have fears about bringing people here, when you don’t know who they are,” she said.

“We have a lot of concerns. Everybody’s got their own concern. My concern is safety, because I read a lot of stories about what’s going on in Europe,” she said.

“I have read a fair amount about Sharia Law, and Islam, although I’m by no means an expert.”

Lavelle wasn’t worried the refugees would be terrorists, but that they’d bring cultural attitudes incompatible with American lifestyles.

“These are not terrorists, these are just ordinary run of the mill people who have a culture that is different from ours,” she said.

“…In their culture when a woman shows skin, whether it’s an arm, a leg, or whatever, she’s considered a prostitute — asking for it.”

Lavelle cited reports of women being groped and sexaully assaulted on the streets by groups of foreign men during New Year’s Eve celebrations in Germany.

“There were over 1,200 assaults on women on New Year’s Eve throughout Germany,” she said.

“Their culture is very, very different from ours. Things they consider acceptable are not acceptable here…

“They consider Sharia Law superior to the U.S. Constitution — their law is what matters, not ours.”

Lavelle was troubled that the resettlement committee, which is working with Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), an organization based in New Haven and affiliated with the Episcopalian Church, wouldn’t know in advance what kind of family they’d be bringing to town, where they’d be from.

“At this meeting, we tried to question: Who is coming? Is this a woman with a baby? Is this a family with six teenage boys? The answer is: ‘We won’t know until 48 hours before they arrive.’ We asked how are they vetted? They said, ‘Oh, they’re vetted.’

“We asked who’s going to support them. Ridgefield has no public transportation. We have no jobs except low-level retail jobs …

“They had no answers. They didn’t have answers to anything.”

She added, “The U.S. is a country of immigrants. We all came from immigrants — my family, too. But when those immigrants came they made an effort to assimilate. I’m sure that many refugees will assimilate. But there are more that will not, because our laws don’t fit well with their Sharia laws.”

Lavelle went to the meeting alone, she said, but found others there were troubled.

Another Ridgefielder, Cheryl Marceau, attended and expressed her objections in a letter to the editor this week (as did Lavelle).

She wondered how refugees could be brought to Ridgefield “… without the support of knowledge of most of the people of this community. Not to mention a vetting process for disease, criminal background, etc.! And when was the town committee or public vote on this, or a request for town approval to foot any bills with our taxes?”

In a letter to The Press Thursday, Sept. 22, resettlement committee co-chair Rettger explained more about the vetting process refugees go through before being sent to a local communities for resettlement.

“Refugees are subject to extensive review in two areas before being accepted to come to the country — first, that they are in fact refugees (that is, in danger of persecution or worse should they return home) and then to extensive security reviews of their identities, backgrounds, and other information.  These security reviews are conducted by the Department of Homeland Security and other related agencies, and can take as long as two years to complete, before a refugee is considered for entry into the country,” Rettger said.
“It is only after this security review is completed that the process of determining where in the U.S the family will be sent begins — whether they end up in California or Minnesota or perhaps Connecticut.”
The committee’s statement “that we don’t have information about the specific family until shortly before they would arrive” needs the clarification that it only relates to the local committee and final placement process, “and is not speaking to the very extensive investigative review and information gathering process that preceded it.”

Some of the talk at the Sept. 15 meeting drew strong reactions from people who support the committee’s efforts.

Wilton resident Rebecca Engmann Darst was upset and wrote a letter that appears in this week’s Press.

“… The meeting became quickly hijacked by a small but vocal group of area residents who had apparently come to protest the initiative,” she said.

“Their arguments ranged from a desire to prohibit refugee children from accessing public school services in Connecticut, to a concern that Ridgefield property values would decline if a refugee family were permitted to move within the town lines, to a more generalized indictment of the perceived ‘dangers of Islam’ in which spurious case arguments were lifted from various websites …

“Common to all of the arguments was an angry, reactionary ‘Not-in-My-Backyard’-style meme that descended quickly into racist, hate speech. I was appalled and embarrassed …”

Amy Freidenrich thought the opponents were rude, interrupting committee co-chairman Ann O’Brien in the midst of her presentation.

“About two-thirds of the way through, a woman interrupted. She asked Ms. O’Brien ‘Who makes the decisions? Who gets to decide?’ Ms. O’Brien (and members of the audience) didn’t understand the premise of her question … Ms. O’Brien explained that the presentation was nearly over, and that the Q&A portion of the meeting would begin shortly. The woman said — I am not kidding — ‘I hope so. This is so boring.’ (I wrote it down!),” Freidenrich said in an email.

First Selectman Rudy Marconi didn’t attend the meeting, but said he was aware there was a committee trying to  bring some refugees to town. He saw no precedent for a town vote on such a thing.

“There’s none required,” he said. “Since when have we ever held a town meeting to determine whether someone can live in our community?” he said.

A refugee family might have children that, like all kids living in town, could go to public schools.

But in a town spending $90 million a year to educate some 5,000 kids, even a family with a number of children wouldn’t add significantly to the cost of running the schools — they’d ride buses that are already running, sit in rooms that are already being heated, learn from teachers who are already being paid.

“It’s an incremental cost,” Marconi said.

School leaders regarded the situation as similar to providing education to children from families from foreign countries who are living in Ridgefield while their parents work in this area for multi-national corproations.

“As a matter of practice, due to several businesses in the region, (Pepsi, Boehringer Ingelheim ) the Ridgefield Public Schools annually welcomes children from countries in Europe and Asia who have diverse educational backgrounds, and we capably provide for the students’ academic, social and emotional development,” Superintendent Karren Baldwin said.  “The school community views diversity through an assets based lens, valuing the different languages, cultures, and experiences, that children and families will bring to our school community.”

School board chairwoman Frances Walton said: “Any child whose family or guardian resides in Ridgefield, and has the requisite documentation, is eligible to attend the Ridgefield Public Schools.  Currently we have children from overseas attending RPS because their families are here with multi-national companies such as Pepsi, IBM and Boehringer Ingelheim.  Some of these students need language support which the district provides.  The global perspective and experience of other cultures enriches our school community and I view it as beneficial for all our students.”

Town Social Services Director Tony Phillips said the benefits provided through his department are — like the food in the food pantry —  donated. Town taxpayers cover department salaries, and some programs like Medicaid and SNAP food assistance draw on federal tax dollars.

“All of our general assistance is provided through very generous donations,” Phillips said. “I help residents of Ridgefield without discrimination. I have people who’ve lived in Ridgefield for 60 years and some who’ve lived here only days.”

Marconi agreed.

“We don’t discriminate against people for moving to our community, and people move in and out every day,” he said. “Some require more services than others.”

The cost of supporting refugees was among the issues raised in handouts opponents of the committee’s initiative were distributing: “Refugees go to the front of the line to receive benefits available to Americans, including: a furnished home; help with rent, healthcare, food, English language classes; building computer, financial literacy and job skills; education for their children; social services and community support; and legal services toward residency and citizenship.”

The opponents made up a sizable portion of the audience at the meeting.

“We had about 40 people and at one point we had a show hands,” Rettger said. “About two thirds of the people — the way we asked it was how many people are here to object and how many are here to learn or participate? — by my visual count about two-thirds were in the learn or help category, and about a third of the people were there to object.”

Lavelle estimated the opponents made up more of the crowd.

“They did ask at one point: How many people came here to protest? A number of people raised their hand — I’d say close to half. I think if we had better answers, that number wouldn’t be so high.”

Rettger said the committee tried to be respectful to the opponents, and let them speak, but also wanted to proceed with the meeting.

“Our purpose in doing these information sessions is to be open and transparent on what we are doing,” he said. “If our effort aligns with someone’s personal beliefs and strikes a chord, we want to tell them how they can help and get involved. We are not trying to change people’s minds — if they do not support our effort, we are not trying to convert them, and they can chose not be be involved.”

The project is moving along.

“As of a couple of weeks ago we officially are approved as a co-sponsoring organization,” Rettger said.

The committee will notify IRIS in New Haven when it believes it’s ready.

“We’re actively discussing a housing arrangement that would be available around Nov. 1, and we’re closing in on our fund-raising goal to help support the family for the first six months — we’re targeting to have $15,000 available,” Rettger said.

“We’re hoping we’ll be able to get them employed fairly quickly, but that’ll depend on English skills. And the funds we’re raising are intended to help support housing cost and living cost while we’re helping to get them to employment status.”

And the meeting did recruit some volunteers.

“Notwithstanding the objections, we came away with a similar number of people who put up their hand to say they’d like to get involved and volunteer as we have at earlier sessions,” Rettger said.

And there was support at the meeting.

“One woman who works with the DARA group (Danbury Area Refugee Assistance) group up in Danbury said ‘I’ve been working with these folks for many months now; they’re wonderful people, it’s been a life-changing experience for me.’ ”

Freidenrich said it made her more enthusiastic.

“While these people were a distraction, it has spurred me to double-down my commitment to the program,” she said.  “Yes, Main Street is charming. Yes, the schools are solid. But what makes Ridgefield special is that our residents demonstrate day in and day out that we are a community of neighbors who thrive by helping each other. We don’t hesitate to collect clothes and supplies for a family whose house has burned. We raise money for a child who has been diagnosed with cancer. We watch our movies at the Prospector, rather than at the multiplex in Danbury. Why? We make these choices because we value service and community, over privacy and self-sufficiency.”  


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