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Somalis Seek Refuge in US, But Some Locales Not Laying Out Welcome Mat - 2002-11-25

Refugees from war-torn nations are getting a mixed welcome here in the United States. The Bush administration has sharply reduced the number of refugees that will be accepted next year, down to 30,000. Many of those seeking a safe haven are Somali Bantus fleeing that country's civil war.

The mayor of Lewiston, Maine, which has a growing Somali immigrant community, issued a letter to the new refugees, urging them to discourage any more friends and relatives from coming. Holyoke, Massachusetts was the expected destination for several hundred Somalis at least until the city council took an unprecedented step. They voted to keep new refugees out.

More than a dozen children play on the stairs of a Holyoke apartment building, where the carpets are stained and the hallway smells of urine. But to the father of this large Somali family, it's a haven.

"I believe if I had not come to the United States, the majority of my kids, they would not be alive. Because the life of the refugees is very, very, very hard," Mr. Ahmad said.

Bedel Hussein Ahmad and his family arrived two years ago from a refugee camp in Kenya. They're the only Somalis in town. But several months ago, a local refugee agency, Jewish Family Services, received a large federal grant to settle 300 Somalis in Holyoke over three years. Program coordinator Ronnie Booxbaum says the agency chose the former milltown, one of the poorest in Massachusetts, for several reasons: its affordable housing, existing social services, and history of accepting immigrants.

"Why not Holyoke? It's an exciting place to be. It's not a huge city that's unmanageable for people. it's got great grassroots coalitions. I think everyone will benefit, because as we all know, if there's just one sort of a thing forever in a place, it gets very dull," Mr. Booxbaum said.

That optimism was quickly extinguished after the plan became public. In a 12-2 vote in October, the Holyoke City Council passed a symbolic resolution calling on the federal government to rescind its grant for the Somali resettlement.

"We generally feel for the people of Somalia, this has nothing to do with them, they've been through a lot already," City Councilor Kevin Jourdain said. But, he said, it's time "to draw a line in the sand."

"Let's face it, the people below the poverty line have more needs for services, educationally speaking… we're gonna have to hire Bantu teachers. There's a disproportionate level of crime with people below the poverty level. People don't want to be always surrounded by that kind of climate," he said.

The opposition goes beyond the city council. Local residents have sent threatening hate mail to city leaders who support the Somali program. Teachers have complained that new refugees will bring down standardized test scores. But refugee advocates say the resettlement will be gradual. And they point out the federal government will pay for job training, English classes, and housing assistance, while the state helps out with food stamps and health care. Still, skeptics say those programs are only short-term. And what about the poor already living in Holyoke? asks Councilor Jourdain.

"If there's a job around, I want them to have it. We don't have to bring 300 unemployed people to Holyoke. We have enough unemployed," he said.

"I think that's probably a sentiment that has been heard in this country for 100 years," says Robert Marmor, head of Jewish Family Services, a group which has helped settle thousands of refugees from all over the world in Massachusetts. "They don't remember the industriousness of all the other refugee communities in the last century or two," he said.

Be that as it may, many Holyokers insist there are better places for the Somalis, like the affluent suburbs nearby. But John Olver, who represents Holyoke and nearby communities in Congress, says that's a no-win situation.

"Holyoke is a very poor city. Because of that, they don't have much in the way of excess resources to deal with things a group like this may need, but the big places that would have the resources, they don't have the housing!" he said.

Congressman Olver suggests that the 300 Somalis should be divided among several towns. But it's up to the refugee agency, not the community, to make the final decision. And given the thousands of refugees still to come, advocates are hoping Holyoke's reaction is not the start of a trend.