After four years working as a translator for the U.S. armed forces in his home country of Afghanistan, Muhammad Daad Serweri’s life in a notoriously unsafe province of the country had become untenable. He’d become a target for death threats from people likely associated with the Taliban, who opposed the work of the U.S. Armed Forces. No longer able to safely stay in the country with his wife and son, it became clear to Serweri they’d have to seek refuge elsewhere. With his brother already settled in New Haven, Connecticut, the U.S. seemed like the best option, so in 2017 Serweri and his family arrived in the country on a Special Immigrant Visa. Once he and his family were approved to travel to the U.S.,they were connected with CWS, one of the country’s nine refugee resettlement agencies, which in turn placed them with a local affiliate in New Haven: Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), an organization that’s come to play a central role in Serweri’s life.
“When we came to New Haven, one of the first people that we encountered was from IRIS,” said Serweri. Established in 1982 as a program of Episcopal Social Service of the Diocese of Connecticut, IRIS provides soup to nuts transition assistance, including case management, employee assistance, educational support, as well as other basic needs for incoming refugee families.
“It was their staff members who welcomed us warmly,” Serweri said. “Before we arrived they had secured housing for us in an apartment with all the furniture and household supplies that we needed.”
IRIS also helped Serweri with wrap-around refugee transition services beyond housing, which included helping him secure employment, getting his wife into English classes, and introducing the family to the local food pantry. As a local affiliate of one of the nine federally funded U.S. settlement agencies, IRIS acts as a community sponsor of refugees, where local residents volunteer and provide services and other contributions to help refugees get on their feet both socially and financially.
“We’re one of 250 community sponsorship organizations that participate in the federal resettlement program, and when the refugees come to us they really have nothing,” IRIS’ Director of Community Engagement Ann O’Brien said. “The majority of them have been living in either camps or urban situations that are administered by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) or other NGOs and they sometimes have been living in those camps for anywhere from two to four years or 15 to 20 years.”
The demographics of IRIS’ clients are constantly changing based on active conflicts and the policies of the U.S. and other foreign governments, including the travel bans instituted by the U.S. in 2017, and can include refugees, asylum-seekers, undocumented immigrants, and others.
“At any given time we can be serving individuals from 25 to 45-plus countries, including Syria, Afghanistan, Congo, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, Honduras, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Peru, Sudan, and Venezuela,” O’Brien said.
IRIS served more than 2,500 immigrants and over 600 new families last year. Community sponsorship functions both as “a way to enrich the experiences of those refugees and enable more Connecticut residents to participate in and become advocates for refugee resettlement,” O’Brien said. Serweri now serves as a senior case manager for the organization, helping to support families like his own who are in the early stages of transitioning to the U.S.
“It’s hard, it’s a new society, it’s a new social system. It’s hard, but with refugee settlement agencies like IRIS, it definitely helped us to have an assimilation process,” Serweri said.
In addition to staff like Serweri, IRIS also offers a variety of ways for those residing in New Haven to get involved as volunteers, both online and in person. Volunteer opportunities range from working in food pantry operations to youth tutoring. IRIS holds quarterly community consultations that include people from the police force, health care, and city governance to inform the community about the key positions they’re recruiting for and the group’s most pressing needs.
IRIS recruits volunteers from many different cultures and backgrounds, with an eye toward the complexities of language, race, and culture reflected in refugee communities and the demographics of New Haven as a whole. The organization intentionally seeks out volunteers who have lived experiences in common with resettling refugees, whether that’s their ethnic or cultural identity, the experience of having been refugees themselves, or just experience completing some of the goals and tasks that make up the transition process.
“We look for people on the ground who get this,” O’Brien said.
For example, in seeking youth mentors to help young people with the community college application process, IRIS looks for people who have gone to those schools rather than to Ivy League universities. Still, it’s not always possible to find an exact match among volunteers. Indeed, IRIS’s client population is far more diverse than the New Haven population, according to O’Brien. Last year, the city was predominantly white with a significant African American population, along with smaller numbers of other racial groups.
“We have groups all over Connecticut, but for example with our health program when we recruited a coordinator we kept in mind that we were expecting to primarily resettle people from Congo, Sudan, Syria, and Afghanistan. But we also know we likely can’t find an African American in New Haven who can speak Arabic, so we have to make judgement calls,” O’Brien said.
IRIS draws both staff and volunteers from those who live locally. New Haven communities and the more than 50 towns around the city have been active in welcoming refugees, starting at the level of city government. Last year, New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker signed the Welcoming City Executive Order reaffirming the city’s protection of immigrant residents and other vulnerable groups. Yale University, which partners with IRIS, also provides health services for refugees arriving in the Greater New Haven area through The Yale Refugee Clinic. If a new program needs to happen IRIS first pulls in the local alderman, works with local church outreach and clinics, and does extensive community resource mapping.
“IRIS has built a very strong bond at the grassroots level; the community here strongly supports their mission,” Serweri said. That grassroots support has helped IRIS get local residents involved in their regular programming, and in events like Run for Refugees, a 5K fundraiser for IRIS where participants race through the East Rock neighborhood of New Haven.
But last year, the pandemic challenged IRIS to adapt its programming to the rapidly changing needs of the community. As soon as the lockdown happened, it was clear their clients would be facing job losses, particularly in the service sector, and would be at risk for greater food insecurity and possible eviction.
“We began raising funds for direct client assistance, as well as rapidly expanding our food pantry operations,” O’Brien said. “When we see a need, we will step into the space and try to figure out how to help those immigrant families.”