Catholic Charities Maine (CCM) came to St. Joseph’s Parish in Bridgton, Maine last Friday night to talk about refugees and it was spirited. Chief Operating Officer Dean LaChance opened the meeting, but I don’t think he expected the skepticism voiced by many of the more than fifty people present. Quite a few raised their hands to ask penetrating questions before LaChance could get his prepared program going. The previous Sunday’s parish bulletin had announced the meeting:
Why are refugees in Maine? What sort of help do you they get? What would you do if you were faced with the same decisions? “In Their Shoes” is a dynamic workshop that will help you understand the path of a refugee and invite you to walk a moment in their shoes. This program will be presented on Friday evening, Sept 16th, from 6:30 to 8:00 pm at St. Joseph Church in Bridgton. “In Their Shoes” will engage you with staff from Catholic Charities Maine Refugee Program to learn about the refugee process, the population currently settled in Maine and the challenges faced by the state’s newest arrivals. All are welcome!
Well, the half-dozen CCM staff who came never got an opportunity to launch “In Their Shoes.” LaChance started easily enough with a brainstorming, word association exercise asking the audience what words came to mind when he said “immigrant.” We got a clue about how the evening would go when someone shouted out “welfare,” which LaChance dutifully wrote on a chalkboard. Someone else said, “hijra(h),” and had to spell it for LaChance. If you google hijra(h), most links say it’s an Indian word for a cross-dresser, but Robert Spencer, a researcher on radical Islam, said it’s an Arab/Muslim word meaning “jihad by emigration.”
The word-association exercise continued and a woman in back shouted out “Adnan Fazeli!” That’s the name of an Iranian Muslim refugee who lived on welfare in Portland and Freeport, Maine before being killed while fighting or ISIS near the Syria/Lebanon border. A month prior, I’d written about him and a Somali Muslim who had also lived in nearby Lewiston, Maine and also died fighting for ISIS. LaChance said Fazeli had first come to Philadelphia. I wondered if he was implying that his agency had not been involved. The Portland Press Herald, however, had reported that Fazeli “came to the Portland area through Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigration Services.” Fazeli also worked for CCM as a translator.
A man claiming to be a member of a local school board protested that schools incur enormous costs to provide ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers for refugee children. He soon got rambunctious and interrupted several times as LaChance, always polite, tried to recover control of the meeting. When several in the audience got annoyed with the man, he left. Others offering skeptical comments did so respectfully and LaChance seemed like a nice guy who believed his agency was doing important work. He said CCM’s refugee efforts fulfilled a social justice mission of the Catholic Church, citing Matthew: 25. Then he cued a woman to begin a powerpoint presentation.
In it, young girls speaking Kurdish with English subtitles described arduous day-to-day life in a refugee camp somewhere in the Middle East. LaChance said all refugees Catholic Charities brings to Maine are closely vetted by multiple US Government agencies and screened for health issues. Some in the audience, however, questioned how that could be done in war zones or in failed states. LaChance said refugees reported being raped and seeing family members killed. A woman in the audience suggested they could be lying to get into the US. LaChance shrugged.
I asked about a document required by the State Department of agencies like CCM called a “Reception and Placement Abstract.” LaChance said CCM files them and I asked if I could have a copy. The R&P Abstract outlines how many refugees would be coming to Maine each year and where they would be placed. First he said I could get one from the state, then said CCM would give me one. I’d heard concerns that Bridgton was a possible destination, so I asked if the R&P Abstract included any places in Maine other than Portland and Lewiston. LaChance looked to Tarlan Ahmadov, CCM program director for refugee services, who said, emphatically, “No.”
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