Sunday, May 7, 2017

USA: Refugees creating a new life in New Jersey


"Before the Depression, about 25 percent of New Jersey's population were foreign born, and we're almost back to that now. This is because New York has always been a gateway for immigrants."

Times of Ahmad | News Watch | US Desk
Source/Credit:  MyCentralJersey.com
By Pamela MacKenzie | May 6, 2017

New Jersey has one of the most diverse populations, but it also has one of the highest costs of living in the US

Shahid Hameed Alvi can still remember that day seven years ago when the Lahore, Pakistan, mosque where he was worshiping was attacked by Muslim extremists.

"There was blood everywhere. People were dead or dying all around me. I am lucky to be alive," Alvi said, his voice breaking with emotion.

That mosque, which was attacked at the end of Friday prayers on May 28, 2010, was one of three Lahore mosques that were attacked that evening. All belonged to the Ahmadiyya sect, a brand of Islam that believes its founder, Mirza Ghulam Amadi, was a Messiah. That core believe is an anathema to Sunnis, the majority Islamic sect that controls Pakistan, and Ahmadis are, by Pakistani law, not defined as Muslims. This makes them a target for the Muslim extremists.

The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for that coordinated attack, now known as the Lahore Massacre, and the official police reports confirm this. According to published news reports the next day, 80 people died. Later reports raised the death toll to more than 90, with an additional more than 100 were injured. Alvi vividly remembers spending hours being held by the attackers among the injured and dead before he could get away.

For Alvi and his family, life had always been difficult in Pakistan. A lifelong Ahmadi, he had faced persecution since early childhood. Like him, his young sons had borne persecution at school. His wife and toddler daughter were not safe in the bazaar, he said. The bombing of his mosque was the handwriting on the wall for him. He applied for visas to the United States for his whole family. It took five years to be able to come to this country legally. They arrived Dec. 19, 2015.

"No Ahmadi likes to live in Pakistan," he said. "A big mullah told his followers to kill Ahmadis and they would go to heaven. Persecution is very widespread, very widespread."

When he lived in Lahore, Alvi was a businessman, running a computer business. Now he works in a gas station. But he is grateful to be here.

"Hard work is not the issue; life, and the future are the issues," he said, adding that his two boys are happy to be in their new school and in a learning environment where they are not persecuted. "We came to this country to be safe and give our children a better life."

His story dramatically illustrates the dangers that motivate many of the people who seek refuge in this country every year.

Refugees a small part of our immigrant population

Alvi and his family now live in Rockaway, coming to a state with one of the highest percentages (22 percent) of foreign-born residents, according to James Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. Hughes said that New Jersey's population is far more diverse than the nation as a whole, which has a only 13 percent foreign-born residents.

"Before the Depression, about 25 percent of New Jersey's population were foreign born, and we're almost back to that now," Hughes said. "This is because New York has always been a gateway for immigrants."

New Jersey may have a high immigrant rate, but it also has a very high cost of living, which presents a distinct disadvantage to refugees who do not come with many possessions or funds. It takes social agencies, many of which are faith-based, to mentor the refugees to help them find a place to live, a job, clothing, food, and financial assistance. Yet the expectation is that the refugees will get settled and working within 90 days.

"That's an enormous challenge," said the Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, copastor of the Reformed Church of Highland Park. "It's so expensive to be poor here. But I don't think we should ever create an economy where we can't care for 'the least of them.' "

After ministering to undocumented immigrants for years, Kaper-Dale's church decided in the wake of the Paris attacks of 2015 to start a refugee resettlement agency that is intentionally interfaith. Working in concert with other communities of faith, they founded "Interfaith Refugee and Immigrant Services and Empowerment, " usually referred to as Interfaith RISE. Throughout New Jersey, 50 congregations are involved with Interfaith RISE, including Jews, Buddhists and other religions. Between October 2015 and September 2016, they resettled 23 refugees in the Garden State. On Oct. 1, 2016, their organization was approved by the State Department  to resettle 50 more people through Oct. 1, 2017. Since January, they've settled 31, from countries as diverse as Syria, Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of  Congo (formerly Zaire), Afghanistan and Iraq.

These refugees come to Interfaith RISE through the U.S. Committee on Refugees and Immigrants, which reviews all the applicants who have received visas, such as Alvi's family did. The committee assigns refugees after a careful review that looks at services available and who has been settled in communities in the past.

"They might look at us (meaning Interfaith RISE) and see that we've resettled people from the Congo, so they will send us another Congolese family," said Kaper-Dale.


Social services key to successful resettlement

Resettling refugees has been a major commitment of resources and time. Interfaith RISE has one paid full-time employee and one par-ttime English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) teacher. Much of the work of helping refugees process all their paperwork, find housing, registering children in school and finding a job is done by volunteers. To accomplish this, Interfaith RISE has contacted communities of faith about buildings they own that might be used for housing, such as empty parsonages.

"This is a win-win situation. The refugees get a place to live, and in exchange, they serve the community (of faith) with work," Kaper-Dale said.

The organization networks with potential employers, explaining how refugees make good employees and how the organization will stand by these individuals as a support system, should any challenges arise.

"We've placed them in factories, as clerks in hospitals, as food service workers in hospitals and as janitors. We've got one working with a baker, as an event planner in a hospital, and even as carpenters," Kaper-Dale said.

In addition, in the Reformed Church of Highland Park's own building, there now is a Global Grace Cafe, where meals are cooked and prepared by refugees. Open for breakfast and lunch five days a week, the cafe serves food made from fresh ingredients and reflects the cultural backgrounds of the refugees who prepare it each day. There are vegan and vegetarian offerings, as well as meals that include meat. Pastries and coffee are served from 9:30 to 11:30 every morning, Monday through Friday. Lunch is served from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Kaper-Dale says it's a very busy place during the lunch hour.

The church contributes to the cost of serving refugees by sponsoring an annual walk, maintaining a thrift shop, and other activities. In addition, items such as clothing from the thrift shop are shared with refugees. Profits from the cafe go to pay the refugees who work there, as well as to Interfaith RISE. And the RISE organization also takes advantage of government programs, such as stipends for refugees in the first 90 days, and a state program called WorkFirst, which includes intensive English lessons.

The church had a series of Prayer and Protest services on Sunday evenings this year to hear Biblical passages contrasted with President Donald Trump's executive orders. Kaper-Dale is very involved in politics, and is running as the Green Party candidate for governor of New Jersey.

"Our biggest challenge is that we live in a world of instability," he said. "We're doing clean-up here for global disaster. We need to slow the tide of people who have to move because of violence and intensive bias."


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