As IRIS Grows Its Footprint, Thousands Run For Refugees

Lucy Gellman | February 13th, 2023

As IRIS Grows Its Footprint, Thousands Run For Refugees

Culture & Community  |  East Rock  |  Immigration  |  Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS)  |  Refugees

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Top: Runner Van Foster at the start of the race. Bottom: Limar Al Zouabi, Abir Yousef, Amir Al Zoubi, Nedal Al Zoubi. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Kiana Ware came back from a pulled Achilles tendon to walk the race, carrying her mom’s immigrant journey with her every step of the way. Aahna Shah ran it for her dad Parth, who came to the U.S. from Gujarat, India, exactly 20 years ago. Diana Mashni hit the pavement for her family, and a home in Palestine from which they have been displaced her entire life. 

Nearly 3,000 runners, walkers, and stroller-pushing superheroes filled the streets of East Rock Sunday morning, for Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services’ (IRIS) 16th annual “Run for Refugees.” In its 16 years, the  five-kilometer race has become a Super Bowl Sunday tradition, braving multiple presidencies, freezing temps, snow and ice, and a pandemic-era pivot that made the race virtual for a year in 2021. 

This year, the race raised a total of $86,411, with a goal of $100,000 (donations are still open). Of 2,953 people who registered, over 2,100 ran in person; more completed the race virtually. Per tradition, it began at Wilbur Cross High School, wound through East Rock Park, and then looped around Livingston, Lawrence and Orange Streets before finishing back on Mitchell Drive.  See all results here.  

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IRIS Executive Director Chris George: Heartwarming, exciting, humbling. 

On the one hand, it's really exciting, it's heartwarming. but it's also humbling,” said Chris George, IRIS’s executive director, in a phone call Sunday afternoon. “It's a big responsibility. These people are saying, ‘We believe in this tradition, we believe in this American mission, and we believe in you in welcoming refugees to this country.’ They vote with their feet. They vote when they write us a check. I feel that in a way, they're our constituents.”

For IRIS, which has resettled 903 refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants since January 2022, it has become “a huge community block party,” George said. For the thousands of people who run, it is also a reminder that many of the country’s newest residents fled their homes as a matter of survival, and are rebuilding their whole lives here in Connecticut. Sunday, some of those refugees stood at the starting line and in an informal cheer section, ready to root each other on. Just second before the starting horn, Azhar Ahmed snuck a glance at her five-year-old son Kuti, and smiled. 

That sense of camaraderie wove through every part of the day, from early t-shirt pickups to final goodbyes and award ceremonies that lasted into the early afternoon. In Wilbur Cross’ buzzing gymnasium, friends Kiana Ware and Siana Smith sat against one wall, chatting before they made their way to the starting line. Both are the children of immigrants: Ware’s mother is Filipino, and Smith’s dad is Jamaican. When Ware learned about IRIS’ mission a few months ago, it resonated with her. 

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Top: Kiana Ware. Bottom: Waren Rivers, who ran the race dressed as Chewbacca. Rivers raised almost $2,000 for the Run for Refugees. 

Growing up in Georgia, Ware heard her mom speak frequently about “the process of becoming a citizen,” she said Sunday, stretching her legs out in front of her.  At home, they communicated in a kind of “Taglish,” a mix of Tagalog and English, that worked for both of them. She carries that with her now, wherever she is in the world. She added that the 5K felt like a milestone: it’s her first race after tearing her Achilles tendon last August. She later finished at just over 40 minutes, with plenty of walkers still behind her. 

It was also a way to get to know New Haven a little better, she said. Born and raised in Georgia, Ware moved to New Haven last year, when she landed a job as a construction engineer at Yale. When she arrived, she learned about IRIS through the Asian Network at Yale.

Seated beside her, Smith reflected on her own immigrant roots. Her grandmother is Panamanian, and her dad is Jamaican. Born in New York and raised in Georgia, she watched them pass their cultures on through food and customs that she now holds close. When Ware asked if she wanted to join the 5K during a visit to New Haven, she was game. 

“It’ll be the longest I’ve walked” since an injury left her with pins in her ankle, she said. A breeze drifted through the gym’s back door, too warm for February. Neither of them seemed to mind.

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Aahna Shah, Parami Sampat, Manya Trivedi, Adi Shah (in the red coat) and Parth Shah. 

Outside, friends Aahna Shah, Parami Sampat, and Manya Trivedi soaked in a patch of February sunlight, excited to support IRIS for the first time. An eighth grader at the Renbrook School in West Hartford, Aahna learned about IRIS last year, after she was tasked with finding a community service project. While her peers gravitated toward food pantries and homeless shelters, she wanted to find something immigration related. 

IRIS was a natural fit, she said: she’s the child of Indian immigrants, who came to the U.S. two decades ago to pursue graduate work in the U.S. She grew up hearing about the sacrifices her parents made so she could have a better education. For years, she has been fascinated by other stories of migration—both voluntary and forced. When news of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan began to permeate the airwaves two years ago, she watched it unfold. She now pays close attention to news coming out of Afghanistan and Ukraine. 

Sunday, she looked around with wide eyes, trying to take everything in. Gaggles of runners bobbed past her in light blue t-shirts. State legislators milled around in the crowd. Her younger brother, Adi, buried his head in her knees with a shy smile. 

“I think it hits close to home for us,” chimed in Manya, a sophomore at Avon High School. “All of our parents are immigrants.”

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Top: The race begins. Bottom: Members of the Yale Gospel Choir sent runners off with an a cappella arrangement of "Lift Every Voice and Sing." Listen to it in the video at the bottom of the story. 

Aahna’s dad, Parth Shah, said the race felt personal for him too. Now a vascular surgeon in Hartford, Shah came to the U.S. to study at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. It became his bridge from Gujarat, a state in Western India, to a life and career in West Hartford. Now, he often thinks about the people who may want or need to leave their home countries, but do not have the resources or the documentation to do so. 

“As an immigrant, I came to pursue studies and a career,” he said. “But there are those who are less fortunate—and that doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve the same chance.” 

Nearby, Diana Mashni circled up with her four children, nieces, and sister, Aida Husein, ready to run on behalf of migrants across the globe. When Mashni immigrated to the U.S. ten years ago, it marked a new chapter in a lifetime of displacement that she is still living, she said. Palestinian by birth, Mashni was born in Jordan, and grew up in Saudi Arabia. Because of constant violence in her native Palestine, she has never been able to return home. That distance is a constant, unending ache. 

When Mashni came to the U.S. and settled in Watertown ten years ago, she became a volunteer translator with IRIS, working mainly between English and Arabic with women and girls who were new to the U.S.. Sunday she said she was glad to return and support their work. While she’s run multiple 5K races, she added, those that are mission-oriented feel more meaningful to her. 

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Aya Husein, her mom Aida Husein, Amira Mashni, Malik Mashni, Haneen Mashni and Diana Mashni. Deyala Mashni is just beyond the frame. 

As runners gathered at the starting line, speakers including Mayor Justin Elicker, Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal all gathered to cheer them on—and to reflect on the work that IRIS does every day (Elicker also ran the race, as did mayoral hopefuls Tom Goldenberg and Liam Brennan). 

Asking for a moment of silence for earthquake victims in Syria and Turkey, Blumenthal reflected on a recent trip to Kyiv, on which he had the chance to visit Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Boarding a train on his way home, “I saw some of the Ukranians who are running for their lives,” he said. 

“I've had visits with Afghan refugees ... the interpreters, and the translators, and the guards who have helped us,” he continued. “They have targets on their backs. They are running for their lives. They are running to the United States of America because we are their last best hope."

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Top: U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro. Bottom: Runners at the starting line. 

Pointing to the $6.3 billion in federal support that has gone to Afghan refugee resettlement efforts, DeLauro recalled Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” an 1883 poem inspired by the Statue of Liberty, and later cast onto its stone base. She praised IRIS for welcoming refugees and migrants—who often flee persecution, poverty, hunger and extreme violence—with housing, healthcare, education and professional training in a new and unfamiliar home. 

"Run today,” she said. “Run to save lives. Run for the American dream. Run for people who yearn to be free."

As they glided through the streets of East Rock, runners drew cheers, musical interludes, and the occasional game day cry of “Go Eagles!,” sometimes accompanied by a blur of green and white. At the corner of Mitchell Drive and Orange Street, Cross’ drumline kept a steady beat. At Livingston and East Rock Road, the sound of a lone, warbling trumpet floated over the street as Laine Harris pressed a horn to his lips. 

At Lawrence and Livingston Streets, the sculptor Susan Clinard stood dancing to Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music” as runners flew, and then jogged, and then walked past. All the way to the finish, it seemed that there were knots of people lining the streets, ready to cheer. 

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Mayor Justin Elicker on the final stretch through East Rock Park. Before the race began, he said that he was proud to support the work that IRIS does in New Haven, which is a sanctuary city. 

This year, the race comes as IRIS doubles down on its mission to welcome immigrants and refugees in both New Haven and the state—and to keep them in the U.S. In fall 2021, IRIS opened a second office in Hartford, meant to absorb some of the new arrivals coming into the state. At the time, it was still triaging arrivals from Afghanistan that followed the withdrawal of U.S. troops and ensuing Taliban takeover.  

Sunday, IRIS Director of Community Engagement Tabitha Sookdeo explained that that work is not over. IRIS is still receiving arrivals from Afghanistan, including 420 individuals to Connecticut since last January. When many Afghans were evacuated in 2021, they took on parolee status—which granted them two years in the U.S., but no formal pathway to permanent residence and citizenship. 

Now, explained Sookdeo, those two years are almost up—and IRIS is trying to keep them in the U.S.  

“They can apply for asylum,” but it's a lengthy and labor-intensive process, Sookdeo said. While IRIS advocated for the Afghan Adjustment Act last year, it died in Congress. In October of last year, President Joe Biden also ended humanitarian parole for Afghans.  

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Top: Five-year-old Kuti Dagoum and his mom, Azhar Ahmed. Bottom: Runners on East Rock Road. 

In addition to 420 people who have arrived from Afghanistan and 196 from Ukraine in the last year, refugees are coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Sudan, El Slvador, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Eritrea, Guatemala, Honduras, and Iraq. Alongside asylum seekers and migrants, Sookdeo said they represent a need that spans nearly 20 languages, from Arabic, Dari, Pashto and Spanish to Sinhala, Tigray, Dinka, Kiswahili and Wolof. Last month, the organization announced that it would be part of the Welcome Corps, a new program from the U.S. Department of State for any citizen to sponsor and take on resettling a refugee.  

For the first time in its 41-year history, IRIS has also expanded its reach to migrants who come to the U.S. in search of asylum, but have not gone through the U.S. State Department, and arrive with little to no documentation. When they get to the U.S.—often from Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvdor but also from Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal, and Angola—they are not eligible for federal benefits. 

“While they wait for their asylum claim to be processed, they need food stamps,” George said in a phone call Sunday. “They need cash assistance. They need work. We should allow asylum seekers to work as soon as they file for asylum. Let them work. They want to work.” 

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To support those migrants, who receive no support from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, IRIS has to clear a hurdle that relies heavily on private funding and advocacy, George said. This week, he plans to testify on behalf of Husky4Immigrants, which would expand healthcare access to all immigrants, with or without documentation. That work is separate from a new federal program for Venezuelans, Cubans, and Haitians for which IRIS has established Sponsor Circles.

“It's only recently that IRIS has opened up our doors to help them,” George said. “We realized that we have a lot to offer other people and that other people have very similar needs [to immigrants and refugees].” 

In a separate call Sunday, Sookdeo noted that some of those migrants are fleeing not just violence and persecution, but also climate-inflicted disaster. An average of 21.5 million people become climate refugees each year, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.     

To watch more from the beginning of the race, click on the video above.