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Refugees Protest Their Treatment

Dozens Demonstrate At Office Of Agency Charged With Helping Them Resettle

May 18, 2006
By ELIZABETH HAMILTON, Courant Staff Writer

Asho Ahmed dreams of going to college some day, but for now she struggles to do her homework each night in the midst of the chaos that comes from cramming 10 people into a small two-bedroom apartment.

The Ahmed family has little choice about their living conditions. They are refugees from Somalia who arrived in Hartford in 2004, after spending 13 years in a refugee camp. Since their arrival, they have struggled to acclimate in a culture that is foreign to them.

They have also, Ahmed says, received little help from Catholic Charities - the agency that is charged with helping refugees resettle here.

"I want to go to college. I made the honor roll," said Ahmed, an 18-year-old freshman at Bulkeley High School who has had to learn English while beginning her education in the United States. "I have a lot of homework to do and the house is too crowded."

Wednesday night in front of the Catholic Charities office on Asylum Avenue in Hartford, Ahmed and about 40 other refugees joined organizers from Hartford Areas Rally Together to protest the refugees' treatment.

Holding signs aloft that read: "Refugee Resettlement Is Your Responsibility," refugees from Somalia, Liberia, Bosnia and elsewhere complained that they have been forced to live in roach- and rat-infested apartments, have received little or no job training, and have waited as long as eight months to be enrolled in school.

"When we came here we faced a lot of problems," said Yussuf Hassan, also from Somalia. "Inside the house, you find a lot of cockroaches, a lot of rats. When you say, `What is this rat?' they say, `You are the one who brought the rat.'"

Sheila Jackson, a HART board member and a member of the community agency's immigrant rights committee, said she is incensed by what she views as an abdication of responsibility toward refugees.

Pointing out that refugees, unlike immigrants, are invited to come to this country to escape persecution and violence, Jackson accused Catholic Charities of giving refugees little opportunity to succeed in their new home.

"They don't even tell them where to get help," Jackson said. "Catholic Charities, I don't know what you're doing with all that money but we're going to find out. I'm angry. Yes, I am."

The Rev. John P. Gatzak, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Hartford, put out a press release Wednesday defending the program, but the executive director of Catholic Charities in Hartford, Rose Alma Senatore, did not return a call for comment.

Gatzak said Catholic Charities has helped thousands of refugees from at least 27 countries in the 25 years it's been active. This year alone, the program has resettled about 300 refugees from Somalia, Liberia, Sudan and elsewhere, he said.

"The job of resettlement is a difficult one for the refugees and those who are assisting them," Gatzak said. "Unfortunately, the resources available to help the refugees are limited."

Jim Boucher, a Hartford city council member who has worked with HART and Catholic Charities to improve refugee services, agreed that a decline in federal and state funding is the root of the problem.

"The resources that have been provided to agencies like Catholic Charities fall far short of what is needed," Boucher said. "I think Catholic Charities is trying their best to provide good services, but they don't have everything they need to do that."

HART officials, however, questioned how Catholic Charities is using the money it gets from the federal government. They also said Catholic Charities recently backed out of a partnership it formed with the community agency, the city of Hartford, and other local groups to try to improve services to refugees.

That partnership, which began formally last November, led to the formation of the Refugee Resettlement Joint Committee and included representatives from HART, Catholic Charities, the city board of education, the department of health and human services, the mayor's office, the city council, Hartford Hospital, and members of the Somali and Liberian communities.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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