The first family under a refugee resettlement program in the mid-Hudson Valley has arrived. The Congolese family landed at JFK Airport this week amid President Trump’s travel ban. Members of the welcome team said they held their breath until the family made it through customs.
The mother, father and their three children arrived at JFK Airport Tuesday. They’d been living in a refugee camp in Malawi for the past six years and their journey to the U.S. began before Trump’s executive order barring entry into the U.S. for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days and blocking refugees for 120 days. After clearing customs, they piled into a van headed for a parking lot at Stewart International Airport in Newburgh, where some 14 members of a welcome team waited, Mid-Hudson Refugee Solidarity Alliance founder Maria Höhn among them.
“The little boy came out first and, of course, that’s the first time he’d ever seen snow so he grabbed the snow and checked it out and was just looking around like, what is this?” Höhn says. “And then the family came out and, of course, we embraced them and it was this amazingly relaxed moment. We were all anxious. How would they see us, how would they meet us? What do they think when they see us, but it was so clear that all the tensions of the last few days of travel just peeled off and they just literally fell into our arms.”
The little boy she talks about is 8 with a 13 year-old brother and 20-year-old sister. Greg Miller also welcomed the family at Stewart and accompanied them to their two-bedroom apartment in Dutchess County.
“We were all so happy to see them because we’d been, over the last several days, wondering whether they would make it,” Miller says. “From day to day we had a different sense of what the prospects were.”
Miller is with Christ Episcopal Church in Poughkeepsie and captain of the church’s welcome team, overseeing the volunteers.
“So my role is to help the different volunteers be able to do what they’re doing to help the family adjust, find employment, learn about the basic functioning of the apartment complex, of how to shop for food, where to shop for food, how to use public transportation,” says Miller.
Höhn, professor of German History at Vassar College, says the family speaks Swahili, French and a little English. She talks about what the alliance plans for the next few weeks.
“We are going to start reaching out to people who have volunteered in terms of offering jobs. We’ve learned now, I think it is the husband who is a nurse and so a lot of people in our alliance will help with trying to help find jobs and then sort of explore how my students can help with language classes,” Höhn says. “We have students, for example, who speak Swahili. Can they be the ones who work with the children to teach them English and those sort of things.”
Höhn says in light of threats, the family’s surname and exact place of residence are being withheld. Here’s Miller:
“There is some danger but I think there are more reasons to be hopeful about how they will be welcomed by people in general,” says Miller.
Meanwhile, Höhn is the one who first broached the idea of resettling refugees in the Hudson Valley. Church World Service is one of nine resettlement agencies that contracts with the federal government to resettle refugees across the country. It set up the refugee resettlement program in the mid-Hudson region, with an office in Poughkeepsie.
Trump’s executive orders have brought about protests and lawsuits, though Trump supporters say the president is doing what he said he would do during the campaign: Put America first. When apprised in November of plans for resettling refugees in the region, some Hudson Valley residents voiced concern about the vetting process, also saying that efforts should go toward helping area residents in need. Miller worked as a volunteer in Mississippi for about 12 years with unaccompanied refugee minors.
“I am heartbroken over what my government has chosen to do. They’re sending people back to their deaths in many cases. And it’s unconscionable,” Miller says. “I worked, when I worked with refugees in Mississippi, with Republican senators, with Republican governors, with Republican presidents who were very much in favor of helping refugees.”
A young adult refugee was in line to be resettled in the mid-Hudson but the ban will prevent this from happening. Höhn says, even with the ban in place, work to help refugees can continue.
“There are a lot of refugee camps that are in desperate need of schools, so we can raise money. We can do advocacy work. I also have this educational initiative at my college together with other colleges to come up with a curriculum that addresses how to prepare our students for the needs of this crisis. If we want to have global citizens they need to be educated about the crisis, and how they can help, how they can be engaged, be it if they work for the State Department or an NGO [non-governmental organization]” Höhn says. “There are a lot of other things we can work on until the administration figures out what it wants to do.”
There was a Mid-Hudson solidarity march Wednesday evening in Poughkeepsie and another “No Ban No Wall” rally is planned for Saturday, also in Poughkeepsie, at the Dutchess County Court House.