Refugees need helping hand, not rejection

Refugees need helping hand, not rejection

Mayor Domenic J. Sarno is asking the State Department to refrain from resettling refugees in the city of Springfield. He argues that addressing their needs has become a burden on city services, noting that the refugees are victims of crime, subject to substandard living conditions and a drain on School Department resources.

We do not question whether the resettling of our newest residents is a legitimate challenge or not. The question is whether an exclusionary approach toward groups such as the Somali Bantu is our best solution. The Urban League of Springfield thinks not.

It’s ironic that this issue has come to the fore as the nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. on that hot summer day in Aug. 28, 1963.

We are taking a-less-than-King-like response to the humanitarian issues to which the late civil rights leader dedicated his life. These are issues that are fundamental to the American ideals and values that make our nation what it is — a light to the tired, poor and the oppressed.

The city should be focused on enforcement of landlord responsibilities to keep their rental housing properties up to code.

 Historically, we are all immigrants, but we are not all refugees. A refugee is a person who has left his or her country of origin due to war and persecution or fear of persecution on the account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group.

The plight of refugees in their home country is extraordinarily severe. Their living conditions in their home of origin are much more challenging than what they endure from negligent landlords in Springfield. Perhaps that is why absentee landlords feel that they can break the law and not get called on it.

Landlords don’t expect the Somali Bantu, who fear deportation, to be whistleblowers. We understand that the mayor has every right and obligation to advocate for the city’s best interests. However, we don’t think a short-sighted exclusionary tactic is the answer. Springfield should use the legal tools it has to deal with substandard housing, to make sure resettlement resources offered by the federal and state government are adequate and to rethink the utilization of school resources to appropriately handle our educational obligations to the Somali Bantu children.

 Frankly, the strategy to stop the flow of these legal Somali Bantu refugees to Springfield feels more like a reaction to a problem as opposed to a thoughtful response.

We should hold accountable the agencies and government institutions that have defined responsibilities to effectively, efficiently and prudently address the challenges the refugees face.

If they fall short, we must find alternative ways to fix the problem. Local leaders must work to solve problems, not sidestep them. We realize the city is strapped for resources and we are totally empathic to that reality.

However, the Urban League cannot in good conscious be silent when our city is taking an injudicious position without thoroughly examining the efficacy and fairness of that position.

The African Somali Bantu are good people who have suffered beyond measure in their native land due to warring conflicts and persecution. If we go back far enough in tracing our heritage, many of us could make similar claims.

In fact, the American Revolution and the Civil War were largely a manifestation of the people’s will not to subject themselves to the tyranny under the king or the slave master. That human will was so strong it enabled us to win those wars; never to ever go back. Let’s not forget the legacy as to how we got here — and our country’s core values.

Going forward, the resettlement agencies will need to step up their games to be stronger trainers and advocates; City Hall will need to be tougher in prosecuting violators of housing codes; the court will need to be more expeditious in processing violation claims; and the School Department will need to rethink utilization of resources to provide required educational support.

Surrounding cities and towns should open their doors as well. The undisputed degree of difficulty around resettling refugees can be mitigated by learning from the mistakes made thus far; here and elsewhere.

Finally, because the treatment of the Somali Bantu families has moral implications, the groups that have already stepped forward to help them should continue their advocacy for these refugees, for the long haul. We hope others will join them.

We do not suggest we have a cure-all solution, but we do know it is un- American to turn our backs on these legal Somali Bantu refugees — just for administrative convenience. It is unconscionable to victimize the victim.