IRIS is a non-profit service and refugee resettlement program located in New Haven, which was founded in 1982, after Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980. Kneerim explained, “There were a lot of refugees coming from southeast Asia, especially Vietnam, after the Vietnam War.”
Kneerim defined a refugee as “anyone who’s been forced to leave his or her country because of persecution. And they could’ve been persecuted for anything, like their religion, or membership in a social group, or even their sexuality... But a huge majority of the refugees come from countries where there is civil war.” Before a refugee can be resettled in the United States, he or she must be screened by the United Nations. If the UN approves his or her request for refugee status, and confirms that the person in question has a reasonable fear of persecution, then a government gives permission for the resettlement process to begin. The next step is finding a location that suits each refugee, which depends on his or her cultural background and nationality.
Kneerim says the refugees at IRIS come “mostly from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Sudan, Eritrea, and the Congo.” He goes on to say, “If a refugee doesn’t have a U.S. tie...they’ll go to a place that has a population of people that speak their language or have a similar national background. For instance...in New Haven, we do have a big Arabic-speaking community, so if there’s an Arabic-speaking person from the Sudan, or Iraq, or Syria, they might come to New Haven because we have those groups here.”
Once a refugee reaches New Haven, IRIS members ensure that an apartment is ready and furnished for the newcomers, and a hot, culturally-appropriate meal is prepared and served within two hours of arrival. Kneerim said, “We help people get their Social Security cards, their employment authorization cards...teach them how to ride the buses...put them in English language classes...enroll kids in schools, help them buy uniforms.” IRIS also assists refugees with building resumes, participating in job interviews, and even filing petitions to reunite families.
However, even with the assistance of IRIS, many refugees struggle to gain a foothold in the rush of American cities like New Haven. Kneerim said, “Like any other large group of people, refugees are as disparate and as diverse as you can imagine. We get refugees who come with excellent English and advanced degrees. And sometimes we get people from countries where they had no formal education and don’t speak a word of English.” Even hard-working, well-meaning, intelligent people may find it difficult to bridge the enormous gap of cultural adjustment.
These challenges make refugees success stories all the more impressive. Kneerim recalled the heartwarming story of a single mother who came to New Haven from Iraq. She had been born into “a good, educated, middle-class family, but she hadn’t worked much, so she came here without English. She got a job cleaning hotel rooms. She had the education to get another job, but she didn’t have the English. But she worked really hard, and after about a year, she was able to tell some jokes in English, and she was able to find a job that allowed her to get home before six o’clock, so she could have dinner with her kids.”
Kneerim also spoke of a thirteen-year-old girl from the Congo, who finally came to IRIS and New Haven after spending most of her short life in refugee camps. “She didn’t speak any English or any Western languages, but she came to New Haven and she learned English within just a few months, just from sitting in classrooms at her middle school in New Haven.” With persistence and perseverance, the teenager rose to the top of her class, and left high school, not only with a diploma, but with a full scholarship to Quinnipiac University, from which she graduated cum laude.
In response to the widespread fear of immigrants that grips many people in today’s world, Kneerim said that “almost always, people are afraid of what they don’t know. If you take a group of people that many Americans are worried about now, like Muslim immigrants, education will teach [Americans] that they shouldn’t be afraid.” IRIS aims to heal the pain of those lucky enough to find successful flight from their own strife-torn homelands, and encourages the people of New Haven and America at large to make our new neighbors feel welcome and respected. “America should be taking more and more refugees, it’s what made this country great,” said Kneerim.
“Coming to America as a refugee is the hardest way to get into this country, so they’ve passed a lot of background checks; they’re safer and better qualified--by far--than most people who come to this country. They make our culture and our economy dynamic. Forty percent of entrepreneurial businesses in America are started by first-generation immigrants. They tend to be very motivated people who want to make a new life. And that is the history of this country.”
All quotes and statistics in this article are drawn directly from a interview that Ellery Saluck ’17 conducted with Will Kneerim, Director of Employment and Education Services at IRIS.
For more information about IRIS and how you can help their programs, please visit www.irisct.org.