Students work on refugee resettlement efforts

Over the course of Winter Study, students from the College worked to prepare the Berkshire community for some of its newest residents: 50 refugees whom the State Department plans to resettle in Pittsfield through Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts (JFS). The specific focus of the project is now in flux given the recent halt on refugee resettlement from Iraq and Syria, the countries from where the 50 refugees were to come. However, the students’ work will continue as Pittsfield prepares to welcome refugees, though perhaps not from the originally intended nations.

In late September, JFS announced at a public meeting that it was, after a long period of consultation with city, state and federal officials as well as numerous community organizations, applying to receive 50 refugees from Iraq and Syria to Pittsfield. While most in the community expressed their support, a small but vocal minority opposed the resettlement, raising concerns such as cost and unease with the vetting process.

At roughly the same time, two students from the College, Jonathon Burne ’17 and Bushra Ali ’17, were working with the Center for Learning in Action (CLiA) to establish a chapter of No Lost Generation (NLG) at the College. NLG is a program of UNICEF and the United States State Department that works on refugee and immigration advocacy. The Winter Study project was born of this confluence. “Very serendipitously, these two things aligned,” Burne said.

During Winter Study, four students – Sara Hetherington ’19, Allison Holle ’17, Mie Mizutani ’17 and Summiya Najam ’20 – began work with JFS as a fieldwork experience for their class, “Fieldwork in Public Affairs and Private Non-Profits.” Their work had three major parts: creating educational materials for community organizations on the resettlement process, crafting a short film featuring Berkshire County residents who came as refugees and undertaking a self-study for JFS on how communities similar to Pittsfield had welcomed refugees.

The community education materials focused on addressing the concerns that Pittsfield residents raised about refugee resettlement, including cost and sources of funding and the vetting process. They created these materials with the goal of enabling groups with established community connections to undertake their own education efforts.

“I’d love to see Williams students get involved in the outside community, but at the same time I want Williams students to support the effort but not lead it,” Mizutani said. “The effort should come from the community; I would like to see students playing a supporting role rather than saying what organizations or the community should do.”

The video project aimed to create an educational tool that humanized the refugee issue for many in the community. “There is this view that refugees come here for economic factors,” Najam said, “for a ‘better life,’ don’t pay taxes, and so on, and this was targeting the point that refugees often were well-off, professionals with professional degrees, and can contribute economically and socially.”

The team of students worked over Winter Study to conduct interviews, cut and edit a trailer and ready it for distribution. The students featured local residents from a variety of backgrounds who all arrived to the country as refugees and had since made a life for themselves in Berkshire County. “There were just really cool stories 

Sopheap Nhim, who immigrated to the Berkshire area from Cambodia in 1979, speaks on the refugee experience for an educational video.
Photo courtesy of Colin Ovitsky.

from people in Pittsfield – people who’d left the Soviet Union, someone whose family left Colombia – just the variety of their experiences and all the things that they’d been through, somehow they all ended up in Berkshire County,” Hetherington said.

The self-study for JFS looked at communities similar in profile to Pittsfield, such as Rutland, Vt. and Poughkeepsie, N.Y. and particularly examined the involvement of college students in several communities welcoming refugees, including Vassar student involvement with the Mid-Hudson Refugee Solidarity Alliance in Poughkeepsie.

From their perspective, JFS has been incredibly appreciative of all the work that students have done.

“It has been wonderful and valuable to JFS  for Williams students to get involved,” Maxine Stein, CEO of JFS, said. “They’ve helped us to create a  library of materials  that will be useful  for a new community seeking information on refugee resettlement. The energy and efforts that the students have provided enhance our work by providing materials needed. We have tremendous gratitude for the partnership between  Williams College and JFS.”

A variety of reasons drewstudents to the project, but many of them cited past personal experiences with issues surrounding refugees and immigration. Hetherington, for example, spent a gap year in Germany just as the refugee crisis arose and noted similar anti-refugee attitudes in the Pittsfield community now. “I was seeing the same sort of resentment here, and I understood and recognized the need now,” Hetherington said.

“As a Muslim and a Pakistani, experiencing the culture shock of coming here,” Najam said, “I think it’s very important for people to know about the lives of people who come here [as refugees] and what they go through, to raise awareness about their lives and understand the context they’re coming from.”

After the recent executive order suspending refugee admissions from Iraq and Syria,  the nationality of the refugees to be resettled in Pittsfield in unknown. The executive order and the uncertainty surrounding it will not stop the group’s community education work, but it may refocus it from concerns specific to Syrian and Iraqi refugees, such as combatting Islamophobia and preparing the community to meet the religious needs of an exponentially increased Muslim population.

However, JFS and the State Department still hope to resettle refugees in Pittsfield regardless of their nationalities, so the students’ efforts will continue through the No Lost Generation chapter. “After the travel ban, it was really hard to realize first that it had even happened but also to realize that a lot of the work we had done had been focused on a specific issue, but it’s still useful for whoever will be coming,” Hetherington said. “There’s still so much to be done and even if the current political climate changes, people will respond to it by adapting and helping out.”

The students’ work will also continue once refugees arrive. “We want to provide a cohort of student volunteers willing to do what community based organizations need students to do for in-kind support – distribute clothing, distribute food,” Burne said. “That’s the most basic level; one notch above that is about how to prepare the community to care for these refugees both with materials and making sure that it’s an inclusive community – anything from language instruction to helping refugees getting around places.”

The project also had the perhaps unforeseen benefit of giving the students a new perspective on the Berkshire community. “I got to know the Pittsfield community better and got to see that people were actually very accommodating and supportive of refugees,” Mizutani said. “My previous impression was that Williams is a bubble with a liberal atmosphere and that it probably wasn’t like that other places, but I got to see how supportive the community was. That was very eye opening and changed my viewpoint about the local communities that surround Williams.”

While the details of Pittsfield’s arriving refugee population may now be in flux, it will hopefully not be for long. “We are  unsure of  the timing of new arrivals … we are optimistic, though, that Pittsfield will be a refugee resettlement city in the near future,” Stein said.