(Reprinted from the Times Herald-Record)
By Leonard Sparks
CITY OF NEWBURGH – Chris Antal knows both sides of the refugee story.
Four years ago, as an Army chaplain in Afghanistan, the Unitarian Universalist minister befriended an Afghan man working as an interpreter for the U.S. military – an occupation that endangered the man and his family.
After returning to the United States, Antal and his Rock Tavern congregation became active in advocating for the man’s resettlement in the United States. In February, Antal drove to Buffalo to meet the man, his wife and their four children at the airport.
“I’m still tormented because I know that for every one that gets through the doors here, there’s a dozen or more that don’t,” Antal said.
The door is about to open a little wider as New York City-based Church World Service prepares to launch a Poughkeepsie office that will serve as a hub for the resettlement of dozens of refugees in the Hudson Valley next year.
On Thursday, Antal and local clergy representing the spectrum of denominations gathered at St. George’s Episcopal Church in the City of Newburgh to learn how they can help the refugees who will resettle in the area.
Organized by the Greater Newburgh Interfaith Council, the gathering drew representatives from Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian and UUC congregations; synagogues; the Newburgh’s mosque.
“All of our traditions – and we include Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Unitarian – value compassion and hospitality for those on the margins,” Antal said.
Conflicts in Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria and other countries have forced more than 65 million people from their homes, according to the United Nations. The total, which includes 21 million children, is the highest on record, the UN said.
The Poughkeepsie office will begin resettling families in January and help about 80 refugees next year, said Brianne Casey, community and ecumenical engagement coordinator for CWS.
While Syrian refugees have drawn a lot of attention, families resettled through Poughkeepsie could come from Congo, Iraq or other countries, Casey said.
“We think that refugee resettlement benefits our brothers and sisters fleeing persecution and the communities to which they arrive and become contributing members,” she said.
Church World Service’s resettlement program relies on local “welcome teams” that help by collecting furniture and household items, and assisting with needs such as food and rent. Volunteer interpreters are also needed, as are people who help refugees learn English.
Lynne Cione, president of the Orange County Chamber of Commerce, said some of the chamber’s nonprofits are interested in helping. “It’s a huge issue right now,” she said.
It is also an issue that has inspired fears that refugees resettling in the United States are terror risks, even though the resettlement process takes 18 months to two years and involves multiple federal agencies.
Hamin Rashada, the Imam for Masjid al-Ikhlas mosque in the City of Newburgh, said he wants to help dispel some of those fears and misconceptions about Islam.
“ISIS kills anybody; it has nothing to do with religion,” he said. “What’s being done in the name of religion is wrong.”