In 1982, the Episcopal Church in Connecticut decided to begin welcoming refugees, reflecting the longstanding history of faith communities worldwide providing safe havens for refugees. Through the Episcopal Social Services, it created the organization that is known today as IRIS- Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, which welcomed its first refugee family in December 1982.
IRIS is a non-sectarian, federally recognized refugee resettlement agency affiliated with two national organizations that work directly with the US Department of State and Office of Refugee Resettlement at the US Department of Health and Human Services to welcome and serve refugee admissions: Church World Service and Episcopal Migration Ministries. Since 1982, IRIS has resettled more than 6,000 refugee women, men and children.
In 2014, recognizing IRIS's desire for independence and self-governance, IRIS and The Episcopal Church in Connecticut agreed that going forward IRIS's purpose will best be served as an organization fully independent from, but in a continued relationship with, The Episcopal Church in Connecticut. In early 2015, IRIS started the process to become an independent 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization.
Each year, the US government admits approximately 85,000 refugees. In 2015, IRIS welcomed 240 of them. In 2016, that number more than doubled, to 530. IRIS's current clients come from several countries including Syria, Iraq, Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Sudan. They range in age from a few months to over 70 years. According to federal law, refugees coming to the US must be placed with a local agency like IRIS. Upon arrival, refugees face the daunting tasks of adjusting to this country, enrolling their children in school, learning English, taking care of their health needs, and finding jobs. IRIS collaborates closely with refugees throughout their resettlement process, at least until they reach financial self-sufficiency and sometimes longer.
Initially, IRIS meets the basic needs of refugees, including furnished housing, food, clothing, medicine, and other essentials. IRIS provides intensive, culturally competent case management; English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) instruction for adults, with an on-site Early Learning Program for toddlers; educational and youth services; health care coordination; employment services; immigration legal services; and a weekly food pantry for refugees and other immigrants.
Growth Strategy through Community Co-Sponsorship
In order to improve our services to refugees and keep up with the increasing number of new arrivals, IRIS has strengthened its Case Management department. There are now 3 licensed clinical social workers on staff, who are able to provide refugees with specialized assistance. We also expanded our cultural orientation program and recruited volunteers called Cultural Companions, who work with clients over a longer period of time helping them adjust to their new communities.
Refugees are becoming employed sooner
IRIS has two key strategies to improve refugee employment: 1) Begin employment preparation very soon after a refugee’s arrival. 2) Place a greater emphasis on outreach– finding and cultivating appropriate employment opportunities. The result: the percentage of refugees becoming employed within their first six months in the US—which had previously fluctuated between 25% and 60%—rose to 70% from October 2013 to October 2014.
Increased Public Awareness
Wide-scale press coverage of the refugee crisis brought about an unprecedented level of support for and interest in IRIS. Throughout 2016, IRIS and its clients were the subject of media attention from local, national and international press. IRIS management worked diligently to meet the increased requests. Through a wide range of events IRIS directly reached at least 10,000 people. In early 2017 IRIS hired a Director of Community Engagement to position the organization to respond to the outpouring of support.
A refugee from Iraq who arrived in New Haven years ago was asked, “Of all the things you needed when you arrived in the US—housing, employment, education, food, healthcare—what did you need the most?”
His answer: “Respect.”
In the twelve years I have been the director of IRIS, I have worked with over 1,700 refugees. The nationalities have changed, programs have grown, services improved, staff have come and gone, the challenges and frustrations and joys raise and lower our spirits, and we never have enough money to do what we need to do. But, through it all, we have treated refugees – our newest Americans – with respect.
Welcoming persecuted people to the United States and helping them start new lives is our nation's oldest and most noble tradition. The basic goal of refugee resettlement is to save lives. The bonus, for Americans, is that refugees enrich our lives. Refugees bring remarkable skills and experiences. They help to internationalize our perspective on the world, and they strengthen our economy.
Visit the IRIS office and you’ll meet these new Americans and get a feel for the international and respectful environment we’ve created. My colleagues are incredibly dedicated, and despite the pressures and stress, they are always professional and polite. Everyone is culturally sensitive. You will hear several different languages spoken and see a colorful array of clothing. After you’re offered coffee or tea you might hear me deliver a pep talk to refugees. “If you want Americans to respect you,” I have said more than 100 times, “You need to work hard.”
Greater New Haven is a welcoming community, partly because it respects diversity and appreciates hard work. But the cost of living is high and jobs for refugees with limited English are scarce.
In order to successfully resettle refugees in Connecticut, IRIS needs to reach out to the general public, raise private funds, and attract a wide range of support from volunteers and organizations. But, as I explain to our refugee clients, “I cannot stand up in front of a group – whether it’s a Rotary Club or a house of worship – and ask people to help you, unless you are helping yourself.”
Refugee resettlement is a tough self-help program that demands a lot from the refugees, people who have already been through a lot just to get here. Starting a new life in a new country will always be a struggle, but with broad support from the Greater New Haven community, IRIS can provide high quality services and treat refugees with the respect they deserve.
The most important recent initiative involving the Board of Directors has been the ongoing work to make IRIS its own nonprofit organization, independent from its parent organization, Episcopal Social Services, a part of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. Independence has been a strategic vision for several years, and it comes as a culmination of a ten-year process that has moved IRIS toward greater inclusiveness and a stronger presence in the community. Board members have taken the lead in writing new bylaws and defining the terms of the ongoing relationship between IRIS and the Episcopal Church in Connecticut.
Over the past six years, the Board has diversified its membership.
The work of IRIS continues to be a source of pride, satisfaction, and excitement for me on a personal level. For over three decades, I and congregations served by me have participated in the work of welcoming and helping to resettle refugees in Connecticut. Many years ago, my current parish sponsored a family of five persons from Kosovo through IRIS. As we came to know about them and their extended family back home, we realized that they had left a family business and network of support behind in coming to the United States. They were glad to be here, but missed everyone and everything they had left behind. Despite a good start in Connecticut, and employment that was able to sustain them, when the opportunity arose, they opted to return home. They were sad to leave us, and we missed them greatly.
Several years later, we were surprised and overjoyed to discover that this family decided, when their children were old enough to pursue higher education, to move back to Connecticut as immigrants. It was a result of their experiences as refugees that them that they were persuaded to return to the United States in the best interests of their children, and the opportunities they would find here.
I continue to experience refugees as wonderfully adaptive people with strong survivor mentalities. They are some of the most ambitious and hard-working people I have ever known. Refugee resettlement always is one of the most satisfying causes I can imagine investing in, and I am proud of and humbled by the amazing commitment of our staff, volunteers, Board members, and donors.
IRIS expects that in 2017, at least 250 refugees new to the country will receive an orientation about legal rights and responsibilities in the US. As they learn about their own rights as refugees and residents in this country, their fears about the Executive Orders and immigration reform will be calmed, which will contribute to stronger emotional wellness.
IRIS’s expects that in 2017, by providing high-quality, culturally-sensitive, and low-cost immigration legal services to its refugee clients, at least:
Alexine previously held senior management positions at a childcare-focused international NGO in Morocco, for 7 years.
IRIS is fortunate to have many strong partners:
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