IRIS' Refugee Resettlement Model Used in New National Program

The New Haven nonprofit is one of just a handful of resettlement organizations selected to lead The Welcome Corps.

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In New Haven, Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, or IRIS, strives to make newcomers feel welcome.

Now, the nonprofit is one of a handful of agencies selected to spearhead a new national program called The Welcome Corps.

IRIS is training people all over the country on the ins and outs of helping refugees establish new lives.

“This is what we do in this country. This is part of our DNA, welcoming people who have fled persecution, and helping them get off to a good start in a country where they feel safe and can enjoy our liberties,” Chris George, IRIS executive director, said.

It’s a model that started right here in Connecticut.

“We resettled over 400 refugees with more than 70 community groups. That was not happening in any other state,” George said.

IRIS is the architect of the community sponsorship concept, that enables ordinary members of the community to sponsor refugees.

Now, the federal government is taking that model nationwide with the brand-new program The Welcome Corps, announced by the Department of State in January.

IRIS is one of just nine refugee resettlement organizations chosen to help lead the service.

“We felt that eventually, someday, the U.S. government would implement a similar program nationwide. And they finally did,” George said.

To join The Welcome Corps, a sponsor group needs a minimum of five people. They then register online and receive remote training on creating a welcome plan. The group must raise $2,325 for each refugee they plan to resettle.

Finally, a family will be placed with the sponsor group, which will offer up support for three months after they first arrive in the U.S.

“They can expect a group of excited volunteers with a couple of minivans. Maybe Welcome to America signs,” George said. “They'd be driven to their apartment, which has been lovingly set up with age appropriate toys laid out on the beds. Then from the moment they arrive, they've got volunteers who are addressing their health needs, connecting them to health care, and getting the kids enrolled in school and helping them learn English and showing them around the community.”

While IRIS will train sponsor groups all across the country through this program, one of the first to complete training in New England, is Boston.

“We want to help our community as much as we can, and we felt like this was a golden opportunity,” Edwige Fotso, with Mission Maranatha in West Roxbury, Mass., said.

The group is made up of seven members of the same church. They expect to be paired with one of the first refugee families to come through The Welcome Corps by the end of May.

“It is part of our activity to serve and welcome people. We have done it in the past, and right now we see that the government is giving us an opportunity to join them,” Dr. Simone Bamba, missionary and vice president of Mission Maranatha, said.

Although The Welcome Corps is just getting off the ground, George sees it as part of a centuries-long American tradition of welcoming newcomers.

“There is no better way to educate Americans and to build public support for refugees than to open up the doors and let them actually participate in refugee resettlement,” he said.

It’s a process he hopes will have a ripple effect, and ultimately help more people find safe homes in the U.S. and across the globe.

“Before you know it, we’ll be welcoming many more refugees to the United States,” George said. “The U.S. government has influence on other countries, they will increase their refugee resettlement programs. Worldwide, the capacity of refugee resettlement will dramatically increase.”

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