Katherine Hazen ’18
Next year 51 refugees from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq and Syria will resettle in Northampton.
When Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker nearly signed onto a letter late last year co-written by other Republican governors banning refugees from entering their states, Northampton Councilwoman Alisa Klein of Ward 7 felt compelled to offer and co-sponsor a resolution to City Council that welcomed refugees.
“And then, a month later, when President Obama raised the cap on refugees for the coming fiscal year, [from] 85,000 to 100,000, I got a call from two people in Catholic Charities [in] Springfield asking if Northampton was serious about being a welcoming community,” Klein said. “Starting in January we’ll start to receive individuals and families from one of those four countries.”
Catholic Charities — the official placement organization under direction of the State Department and the UN — heads a steering committee which is composed of some 50 “stakeholders” in the community, Klein said. The committee is broken up into several different working groups that focus on topics such as employment, childcare and education, English language and learning and various parts of life that refugees, especially those who have spent a long time in camps, will need help with.
Denys Candy, director of the soon-to-be-renamed Community Service Office, along with Interim Director for Religious and Spiritual Life Matilda Cantwell, represents Smith’s interest on the steering committee.
“In terms of what I hope Smith’s involvement would be, it’s probably too early to say,” Candy said. “But what would happen is different opportunities would emerge for Smith students, and the college as a whole, to support the refugee and immigrant families in the new year. I’m also hoping specifically to make a contribution to opening up employment opportunities for the new residents in Northampton.”
“Smith College is proud to be part of a community that is welcoming, inclusive and diverse,” said Sam Masinter, associate vice president for the office of college relations.
While the Northampton community has been generally supportive, there has been some pushback.
“Some of this has taken place against the backdrop of a national political conversation on refugees,” Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz said. “One of the major presidential candidates, who I won’t name, uses Syrian refugees as an example that the US is exposing itself to danger. People [in Northampton] are generally supportive, but there are questions and concerns.”
Some constituents have questioned how the city can welcome refugees when there is plenty of poverty and homelessness among current residents.
“These aren’t mutually exclusive,” Klein, who is volunteering with Catholic Charities to assemble the community, said. “If we’re welcoming to refugees, it doesn’t mean we’re turning our backs on people in need in Northampton. [Research shows that] communities that absorb refugees experience economic boom.”
To dispel some anxiety, Klein has been leading house parties where the vetting and resettlement processes are explained and citizens are asked to volunteer.
“We’re using a model [called] circles of care, [in which] six to eight people or households will commit to gathering around a refugee family and helping them with all their resettlement needs, as basic as going to the grocery store, providing childcare … for people that grew up in refugee camps. It’s things as basic learning how to turn on the stove … [and] learning to navigate day to day life in the US,” Klein said.
Public forums have also been important in educating the community, with one next Monday in the JFK Middle School cafeteria at 6:30 p.m. and another next Thursday at the Northampton Senior Center at 2:00 p.m.
“I’m proud that our city is stepping forward to take this on,” Mayor Narkewicz said. “Northampton is and has been a welcoming community for immigrants for people of all walks of life.”