Saturday, September 29, 2007

HAGERSTOWN, Md. — A church group that resettles foreign refugees in the United States with federal oversight said yesterday it will close its Hagerstown office after nearly three years of operation because the Western Maryland city is perceived as “unwelcoming.”

The Virginia Council of Churches’ announcement caps 12 months of sour relations. Many residents of the Western Maryland city of 39,000 didn’t know that nearly 200 refugees had been placed in their community until last October, when emergency medical workers, lacking an interpreter, mistook a Burundian woman’s morning sickness for a chemical or biological threat and set up a decontamination tent on a downtown street.

Since then, despite regular monthly meetings with local officials, the group’s requests for funds to help pay refugee housing costs have been denied by the city and Washington County.

The Rev. Richard Cline, refugee resettlement director for the Richmond-based church group, acknowledged his public-relations failings Sept. 19 at a community forum that included U.S. State Department officials. But the meeting, organized as a last-ditch attempt to calm the waters, instead convinced the group’s sponsor, New York-based Church World Service, to order the Hagerstown office closed.

“The people who made the decision felt that it was not in the best interests of refugees to resettle them in an area that is perceived to be unwelcoming,” Mr. Cline wrote in an e-mail yesterday to the Hagerstown Herald-Mail.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Mr. Cline said the unflattering perception was based on “the comments of a small but very vocal group” critical of refugee resettlement.

Joseph Roberson, director of Church World Service’s immigration and refugee program, blamed Mr. Cline’s organization for the friction.

“I don’t perceive Hagerstown as unwelcoming. I perceive Hagerstown as a place that adequate support for the refugees program had not been built,” he said.

Mr. Roberson said the Virginia Council of Churches had stronger support for its programs in Richmond, Harrisonburg, Manassas and Newport News, Va.

Officials in the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, which funds and monitors refugee resettlement programs, declined to comment on Mr. Cline’s statements.

Mr. Cline said the shutdown in early December will mean that about 50 refugees, mostly from Burma, who were scheduled to come to Hagerstown in the coming year, will be resettled elsewhere by another organization.

The Hagerstown office will remain open long enough to administer any remaining employment-assistance grants from the Maryland Office of New Americans, he said.

The Hagerstown Area Religious Council, which passed a resolution last week expressing support for Mr. Cline’s program, was disappointed by the news, said the Rev. Richard H. Jewell, a Methodist pastor and council leader.

“I think there were a lot of misunderstandings on all sides, and I think a lot of it got caught up in a lot of the national issues,” he said. Mr. Jewell said many residents wrongly consider refugees illegal aliens. He also cited increased fear of Middle Eastern refugees due to the terrorist attacks of September 11.

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