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Group Focuses on Acclimating Immigrants to Connecticut Through Education, Support Programs

A group that supports immigrants in their transition to the US is hoping to do more to help them settle in Connecticut.

Devine Mahoundi fled to the United States from the Republic of Congo as a refugee two years ago. Mahoundi, whose mother was kidnapped for speaking out against the government, says she faced death threats daily until she came to Connecticut.

"Here I can go everywhere. I can do everything I can do to achieve my dream to become someone who I want to become,” the teen explained. “You can be who you are truly and live your life without being worried about what can happen tomorrow.”

Just as her journey to America has given Devine the chance to plan for her future, Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services or IRIS hopes to do the same for dozens of other children who live in limbo at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Everyday people are calling and emailing our office saying how can they help the families at the border,” said Kelly Hebrank, IRIS Development Specialist.

For 10 years, IRIS has run a summer learning program in New Haven. Hebrank says numbers have skyrocketed from the summer of 2017 to this year.

“Most of them are from Afghanistan because that's been the majority of the people we've welcomed over the last year,” Hebrank said.

On any given day, program coordinators say there are 100 preschool to high school-aged students in attendance.

“We're here to help with English, other academics. Give them a really good foundation in English literacy to get them ready for school,” Hebrank said.

Preschoolers are joined by their mothers who’ve come to class to learn English. Some of the students have never seen the inside of a classroom.

“Some of the kids, you know, don’t have a lot of experience in a school classroom, particularly kids from Afghanistan, kids who have been in refugee camps for a number of years, they just don’t have a good foundation of being in a classroom,” Hebrank explained.

With only four paid teachers on staff the summer program depends on volunteers and private funding, costing $50,000 over seven weeks.

"They come in, they're shy. They're terrified, they can't make eye contact. As time goes on they're laughing, they're playing with kids that don't speak the same language as them,” said Brenda Denouden, who is in her second year as a preschool volunteer.

Shaping young minds through programs like this is what the federal government should be focused on, according to US Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) who toured several classrooms Friday.

"These programs should be expanded and provided wherever there are children,” said Blumenthal.

The Democrat, who recent visited detention camps in Texas and has railed against President Donald Trump’s immigration policy says programs like IRIS should be opened up to the thousands of children separated from their moms and dads at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I’m here to take this picture back to Washington with me and convince my colleagues we should be nurturing and supporting these kinds of programs,” said Blumenthal.

IRIS wants to invite some of those migrant families to Connecticut.

“Communities could host them as they seek asylum and provide support so that they’re learning English, they’re acclimating, their mental health is being addressed while their asylum case is being reviewed,” explained Hebrank. “People are calling us saying they'll host them in their homes, there's such amazing support from residents throughout Connecticut. We can't do that unless the government allows that, so that's what we're pushing for.”

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