- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 5, 2007

HAGERSTOWN, Md. — A refugee resettlement program that has brought more than 200 Russian and African immigrants to Hagerstown since 2005 will add about 200 people from Burma to the area over the next 18 months, the program’s local coordinator said.

Burma, also known as Myanmar, was denounced by the United Nations in December for persistent human-rights violations against ethnic minorities in the eastern state of Karen, which borders Thailand. Last year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice waived certain restrictions on U.S. resettlement of Karen refugees.

The Virginia Council of Churches, based in Richmond, plans to bring about 100 Burmese refugees to the western Maryland city by Sept. 30, and another 100 by Sept. 30, 2008, said George H. Miller, coordinator of the group’s Hagerstown office.

Mr. Miller last week outlined the plans during a presentation to the Washington County Board of County Commissioners. He asked the five-member, mostly Republican board for $15,000 in emergency funds to help cover housing costs for refugees. Such a commitment would demonstrate “that the community is behind this activity,” Mr. Miller said.

The four commissioners in attendance didn’t discuss the proposal during their meeting. When asked about it later, two were opposed and two were undecided.

“I’m struggling with putting county tax dollars to that initiative,” board President John F. Barr said.

Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire, the board’s only Democrat, accused Mr. Miller of trying to “circumvent” resettlement rules requiring each refugee or refugee family to have a sponsor to assist them. Mr. Miller said just two of the 64 refugee families in the area have local co-sponsors, although all are sponsored by the Virginia Council of Churches.

“If there is a lack of sponsorship for the number of families they’re looking for sponsors for, then it’s obvious that we’re at a threshold for the number that we can take,” Mrs. Aleshire said.

Mrs. Aleshire was on the Hagerstown City Council last year when that panel rejected a similar funding plea from Mr. Miller. Another City Council member, Kelly S. Cromer, accused the Virginia Council of Churches in December of “dumping” refugees in Hagerstown.

Mr. Miller said Monday that 74 of 78 employable adult refugees have full-time jobs. Twenty-five work at a local mattress factory, he said.

Mr. Miller said the Council of Churches chose Hagerstown for the program because of its availability of jobs, reasonable cost of living and quality of life for families. The Council of Churches moved its Maryland office from New Windsor to Hagerstown in 2005.

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