Group considers bringing refugees to Charleston

CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail photos
Jeffrey Hawks and Allison Duvall, of Episcopal Migration Ministries, meet with community members at St. John’s Episcopal Church, in Charleston, Thursday afternoon. They spoke about Charleston’s suitability as a potential “resettlement community” for hundreds of refugees.
Ellen Allen, executive director of Covenant House, Annette Zavareei, a local advocate for refugees, and Islamic Association of West Virginia Vice President Sue Barazi tell employees with Episcopal Migration Ministries that they believe Charleston is an ideal place to resettle Syrian refugees.

As Charleston’s population continues to decline, a refugee resettlement service is considering opening an agency in the city that would assist hundreds of refugees in moving to the area.

Episcopal Migration Ministries, a refugee-resettlement agency, sent Jeffrey Hawks and Allison Duvall to Charleston to learn more about the city this week. Hawks is a consultant for the organization, while Duvall is an employee.

The West Virginia Interfaith Refugee Ministry, a group that started to create greater understanding of the plight of Syrian refugees, is working to turn Charleston into one of the Episcopal Migration Ministry’s “resettlement communities.” The ministry has 30 of those communities in cities throughout the United States.

The agencies work with local organizations in each city to assist refugees with translation, food, clothing, housing, education, mental health support, medical services, job training and community orientation.

Anti-Muslim sentiment is rampant throughout the country. Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for president, has called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States. Many have called for preventing Syrian refugees, fleeing the carnage of civil war in their country, from entering the country. A West Virginia lawmaker even started a petition to ban them from West Virginia.

However, a group of Charlestonians sat in a meeting room at St. John’s Episcopal Church Thursday afternoon and took turns trying to convince Hawks and Duvall that Charleston would be an ideal place for refugees from Syria and other places to live. (The national Episcopal group works with refugees from all around the world, including Africa, South American and Asia.) Some spoke of how welcoming Charleston has been to them, including Nahla Nimeh-Lewis, who is from Syria.

“This is an ideal place to bring and settle people,” she said, “because I’m one of them.”

Social services workers spoke about the safety network here, and the strong relationships between social services organizations.

But they didn’t have to do much convincing. Episcopal Migration Ministries has already researched Charleston and decided it would be a good fit for refugees. Ultimately, whether the city can be selected as one of the ministry’s resettlement communities will be up to the U.S. Department of State, Hawks said.

“You don’t have to sell me on this place,” Hawks told the group. “I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t already sold.”

Hawks’ and Duvall’s trip, which continues today, is more about meeting with various stakeholders and ensuring that they are friendly to the mission, and learning more about the community, so that the ministry can make its case with the State Department.

“No matter how much we want it,” Hawks said, “they can still say no.”

Hawks and Duvall met a friendly crowd Thursday evening as well. They attended “The Refugee Experience” at 7 p.m. at the Islamic Association of West Virginia, in South Charleston. At the community event, refugees spoke about their experiences resettling in Charleston.

Asmael Saifo, who is from Syria, said he knew no English when he moved here in 2013.

“Now I have a lot of friends in Charleston,” he said.

Nevzeta Nikocevic, who is from Bosnia and moved here in 1995, also said West Virginians have embraced her. “I consider myself the happiest and the richest person in the world because I have so many friends,” she said.

She remembered George Washington High School placing a big sign outside the school to welcome her son. Now he’s a Charleston police officer. “You can imagine what that (meant) for him to be welcomed in that way,” she said.

Today, Hawks and Duvall, as well as volunteers for the effort, have a full day planned. They will meet with representatives of the Kanawha school board, city officials, police, a potential employer for the refugees, social-services providers and others.

Duvall said she has told supervisors, “These folks in West Virginia, if you give them toothpicks, they’ll build a spaceship.”

To complete the spaceship, those in Charleston organizing the effort will need to raise about $90,000 for upfront costs. They will need to pay for the salary of at least one employee of the agency for every 75 placements.

The State Department will vet the refugees by checking their names in an international database that includes known and suspected terrorists. Officers with the Department of Homeland Security also will individually interview them, and their fingerprints will be checked against various databases. Certain refugees, including Syrians, also will require clearance from numerous law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Reach Erin Beck at erin.beck@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5163, Facebook.com/erinbeckwv or follow @erinbeckwv on Twitter.

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