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‘Circles of care’ to help refugee family settle in Northampton

  • Annie Bissett, and Nancy Flickinger members of the circle of care group who will be helping the first refugee family settle into a new life in Northampton, look over the list of items to buy to stock the fridge for when the family arrives. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Annie Bissett, and Nancy Flickinger members of the circle of care group who will be helping the first refugee family settle into a new life in Northampton, look over the list of items to buy to stock the fridge for when the family arrives. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Nancy Flickinger and Annie Bissett, members of the circle of care group who will be helping the first refugee family settle into a new life in Northampton, buy some food basics to stock the fridge for when the family arrives. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Nancy Flickinger and Annie Bissett, members of the circle of care group who will be helping the first refugee family settle into a new life in Northampton, buy some food basics to stock the fridge for when the family arrives. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Nancy Flickinger and Annie Bissett, members of the circle of care group who will be helping the first refugee family settle into a new life in Northampton, look over tomatoes to stock the fridge for when the family arrives. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Nancy Flickinger and Annie Bissett, members of the circle of care group who will be helping the first refugee family settle into a new life in Northampton, buy some food basics to stock the fridge for when the family arrives. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Nancy Flickinger and Annie Bissett, members of the circle of care group who will be helping the first refugee family settle into a new life in Northampton, buy some food basics to stock the fridge for when the family arrives. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS



@amandadrane
Thursday, February 16, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — While many people have worked for about a year to bring 51 refugees to the area, the work doesn’t stop with their arrival in Northampton.

Some 180 people in the community — faith groups, neighbors and friends — have joined to form “circles of care.” Each of these groups, which have about a dozen people each, made a 5-year commitment to transport the incoming families where they need to go, help them learn English and get them acclimated to life in America.

The first family to come to Northampton arrives in the city this weekend after spending two years in a Turkish refugee camp. The family — a disabled woman and her two adult sons — is originally from Iraq. Catholic Charities also resettled a Bhutanese family, who arrived Thursday, in Westfield.

In a meeting held at the courthouse on Wednesday, leaders of the volunteer groups took the opportunity to ask Catholic Charities questions about the work ahead.

Since the need for wheelchairs and handicap-accessible homes took some by surprise, volunteer coordinator Keegan Pyle reminded the group that the agency agreed to take refugees with medical conditions, though not ones of “high medical needs.” She said the two disabled mothers arriving this week did not meet that highest criteria, as they will not require immediate medical transport upon arrival at the airport.

Each group has made a 5-year commitment to caring for one of the families. Three of the groups have been assigned to a family, meaning they know who is coming as well as some basic information about their background, but the group knows very little about when the families will arrive. The other two groups know merely that they will welcome arriving families at any point between February and May.

“Are we sure we’ll get those seven families?” a volunteer asked Pyle during the meeting of the 51 refugees the agency originally planned to resettle.

“We’re not sure of anything right now,” she answered.

Given the current political climate, group leaders asked if the families will be given documentation certifying they’ve entered the country legally, resolving to reach out to Police Chief Jody Kasper for guidance. They talked about the need for housing, about how all the confusion that followed President Donald Trump’s executive order freezing refugee resettlement meant they lost some of the housing they had lined up.

“It’s hard for the landlords,” Pyle said. “We all know (housing) is the biggest challenge.”

Pyle also fielded concerns about donations and where to direct them. Mattresses, she said, are the most important thing the agency needs to buy — and they need to be new — so she’s asking those interested in donating to buy gift cards to stores that sell mattresses.

While Pyle said the agency would stand alongside the refugees and the circles for the long haul, circle leader Judson Brown reminded others at the table that “all the goodwill in the world doesn’t pay staff if you don’t have the funding.” He said he encourages the community to also donate directly to local resettlement agencies — Catholic Charities, Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts and Ascentria.

“These agencies are going to need buoying,” he said.

The group charged with caring for the city’s first family is a congregation from Edwards Church of Northampton. Chris Hjelt, co-leader of the circle of care, said there are 10 active members but more would likely join. She said the group has already been meeting and preparing for over two months.

“Our main job is to provide emotional and day-to-day support for the family,” she said. “We will be sure that there’s food in the house, that there’s cooked food ready for them as they arrive.”

She said the first few days will likely be overwhelming for the family, and she acknowledges it will be difficult to know when to help them and when to give them privacy.

“That’s going to be a delicate balance for us. How much company would they like, and how much would they just like to be a unit? We want to be sensitive to when they need their space and when they need a friendly face from their new home,” she said. “We’re all on a huge learning curve here.”

Members of the group said the good thing about joining together as a faith community to volunteer is that there’s an entire congregation ready to help out at all times.

“As a faith community, this is just type of thing to do — you do this for people,” said group member Nancy Flickinger. “Especially refugees — they need all the help they can get.”

Annie Bissett, the group’s co-leader, said after xenophobic sentiments grew following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, she trained to become an english tutor for immigrants. Now that a second wave has come with the rise of Trump, she said it’s important for her to once again stand by her beliefs.

“Politically it’s really important for me to stand up for what America is,” she said. “Every once in a while I think about it and it makes me cry. It’s a big deal what these families are doing.”

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@gazettenet.com.