May 24 - 31, 2006
By ANDY HART, The Hartford News Staff Writer
The road of the refugee has never been easy. Being forced out of one’s native land because of war or natural disaster and settling in a strange country is a rocky, uphill path.
But a group of refugees who have been placed in Hartford recently say their path has been made harder still because of inadequate assistance from Catholic Charities, which is in charge of the initial resettlement of the refugees.
Rose Alma Senatore, Chief Executive Officer of Catholic Charities, said her organization is doing all it can under the circumstances to assist the recent refugees, most of whom come from the African countries of Somalia, Liberia and the Sudan.
Last Wednesday, Hartford Areas Rally Together (HART) and its Immigrants Rights Committee (IRC) held a rally in front of Catholic Charities’ headquarters on Asylum Avenue to call attention to the difficulties the recent refugees are still facing. The refugees speaking at the rally described numerous problems, including low quality housing in high-crime neighborhoods, lack of health insurance, inadequate job readiness training, especially for women, and delays in registering refugee children for school.
Several refugees and HART leaders demanded that Catholic Charities improve their services for the refugees and show how it allocates the funding it receives for refugee resettlement.
Senatore acknowledged that the refugees are facing trying conditions. “Not just refugees, but many Hartford residents are facing immense challenges like poor housing, lack of daycare and of job training. These are real issues but they are bigger than all of us...everyone has to be at the table to maximize the amount of resources that are available.”
At HART’s Congress last October, the group announced that it had reached an agreement with Catholic Charities to work together in partnership to improve the living conditions for the refugees. Since then, other entities have joined the partnership, including Hartford Hospital and the City of Hartford Department of Health.
However, in a release issued to announce last week’s rally, HART stated that Catholic Charities, specifically Dr. Galo Rodriguez, Interim Director of Migration and Refugee Services, had not attended two recent meetings and that Senatore had not responded to HART’s request for a meeting with her to discuss their concerns.
Senatore said her group wants to continue the partnership and that her staff has attended the meetings. She said that she had gone to the first few meeting “to set the partnership up” but then had turned things over her staff members who are directly working with the refugees.
Many of the refugees who spoke at last Wednesday’s rally described poor housing conditions, such as infestation by rats and roaches, high crime, furniture that is broken and “looks like it was picked out of the trash” and small apartments for large families.
Senatore said Hartford’s lack of safe, quality low cost housing is exacerbated by the fact that Catholic Charities often has only 48 hours to find and furnish a home for a refugee family.
She also said her group’s funding lasts only for about six months and then the refugee family must rely on state monies to pay the rent, unless they have found a job to augment outside funding. Because the state will pay less then Catholic Charities, the family might then have to move to an apartment with a lower rent if Catholic Charities settled them in one which has a higher rent than can be afforded with only state financial assistance, Senatore said.
Senatore did say that Catholic Charities is currently working with a local non-profit group which has several apartments in Hartford’s South End. Catholic Charities has asked the group to lower its rent for the refugee families but so far they have agreed to do so only on a case-by-case basis.
Senatore said the federal funding for the refugee resettlement is distributed though the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops. This group decides the number of refugees which will be sent to each organization, such as Catholic Charities, and then allocates funding based on that number. Senatore said the money provided for each refugee is the same throughout the nation, even though the cost of living in Connecticut is significantly higher than in other parts of the country.
Senatore also said Catholic Charities has been settling refugees in the Greater Hartford area for about 25 years. The Somalian, Somali-Bantu, Liberian and Sudanese refugees began coming to the Hartford area about two and a half years ago. Last year, about 300 refugees from these countries were settled in Hartford.
Although immigrant rights have been much in the news recently, Charmaine Craig, a member of HART’s Board of Directors, said refugees are not the same as other immigrants. “Most immigrants, like myself, chose to come here. We invited the refugees to come here,” she said.