“Nobody Chooses To Be A Refugee"

Lucy Gellman | December 11th, 2019

“Nobody Chooses To Be A Refugee

IRIS  |  Refugees  |  Arts, Culture & Community  |  State Legislature


Khadija Alahmad, who fled Aleppo with her family in 2014, earlier this year at a storytelling event for the  Jewish Community Alliance for Refugee Resettlement or JCARR. “I want to say that immigration is a bittersweet experience," she said at the event. "It is harsh and difficult, but honestly, it has taught me many things I wouldn’t have learned if I was still in my country." Lucy Gellman File Photo. 

As the country inches toward the celebration of one migrant family this month, Gov. Ned Lamont has doubled down on his commitment to accepting many others into the state, even as they face pushback on a national level.

Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Ned Lamont announced that he has submitted a letter to the U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, notifying the Trump Administration that the state will continue to accept refugees and asylum seekers "fleeing persecution and seeking safety from violence" even as the administration continues its crackdown on immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers from around the globe.

The letter follows an executive order signed in late September that requires, for the first time in the history of the United States, state leaders to affirm in writing that they are willing to accept refugees into their states.

According to the order's language, it is part of an effort to be "respectful of those communities that may not be able to accommodate refugee resettlement," meaning that states now have the power to turn away refugees as they please, for whatever reasons they deem necessary.

In September the Trump Administration also announced that it would be cutting the number of refugees welcomed into the United States to just 18,000 in the next year. This year, that number was fixed at 30,000, reflecting a massive shrinkage that began early in Donald Trump's presidency with a sweeping travel ban on majority-Muslim countries. 

 In New Haven, local resettlement agency Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS) has seen the direct effect of those cuts. In 2018, the organization resettled 120 refugees, down from 343 in 2017, and 530 in 2016. Currently, the organization only receives $1,000 in federal assistance per refugee. In the city, meanwhile, refugees and asylum seekers have also touched every corner of the community, including culinary artists, theater makers and collaborators, storytellers and many of the laborers who make the city's hotels and businesses run. 

"Nobody chooses to be a refugee," Lamont said in a press release Wednesday. "This new requirement for states and towns to notify the federal government on whether they are willing to continue accepting refugees is simply an attempt by the Trump administration to deny safety to vulnerable families across the world."

"Resettlement of people fleeing violence and seeking a safe place to raise their children is a bedrock principle on which the United States was founded. Attacking immigrants and refugees does nothing to make our communities stronger, and in fact only achieves the exact opposite."

In a phone call Wednesday afternoon, IRIS Executive Director Chris George applauded Lamont for his letter and said that he hopes to see municipal leaders in the state following suit. He called the governor's message "totally in step with the feelings of the people of Connecticut, which we have noticed for years is supportive of refugees."

He said he was especially moved by the use of the word "bedrock"—not just to show that welcoming refugees dovetails with American history, but also because the Statue of Liberty's granite pedestal comes (and part of its new museum as well) from a quarry in Stony Creek.

"I read his letter, and I feel like there's Aaron Copland music," he continued. "It's just so well-worded and expressive ... it's the American sentiment of welcoming refugees."

"This is yet another sign that the Trump Administration's effort to reduce the number of places that welcome refugees is actually going to backfire, and lead to a larger and a broader expression of welcoming and hospitality," he added.

Read the full letter here.