Jul. 13—The Otsego Refugee Resettlement Coalition announced Wednesday, July 12, that two refugees arrived this week in Otsego County.
One is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the other from Burundi. They arrived Wednesday at Albany International Airport after a two-day journey from Africa.
They are a couple and will be sharing an apartment, which has been furnished with some new items but mostly donations, and stocked with familiar food.
That's all the information the coalition was willing to provide.
"We want to be as transparent as possible, as we give people privacy as they acclimate," said coalition steering committee member Debra Marcus.
The coalition includes nonprofit organizations, businesses, educational institutions, faith communities and local individuals who came together in 2021 to establish a process for welcoming new refugees to Otsego County.
Refugees have left their home countries due to persecution, natural disasters or violence.
Marcus said the coalition worked hard to find an affordable apartment, which the coalition will cover for 90 days. After that, the assumption is the refugees will get jobs and be able to the afford apartment on their own.
The coalition took advantage of a new federal program for refugee resettlement called Welcome Corps, which the Department of State rolled out in January. It allows for private sponsorship groups to apply to host refugees, who are thoroughly vetted.
The coalition was working with the Center for Refugees in Utica, where the refugee population has been credited with reviving the area economically.
Marcus said that the Center deemed Oneonta just too far away at 54 miles when its radius is 50 miles.
Nonetheless, the experience helped the coalition with the extensive Welcome Corps application.
"We knew all the answers," she said.
According to Marcus, out of more than 250 applications from private sponsor groups, the coalition's was within the first eight to be approved. The recently arrived refugees were the third group in the country to arrive and the first in New York state.
"They are looking at us now," she said, "to watch how we're doing it and create a model after us for arriving refugees."
Each private sponsorship group is assigned a mentor group through Welcome Corps. The coalition was paired with Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services in New Haven, Connecticut.
IRIS sent a list of groceries to the coalition so they could stock the kitchen properly for the arriving refugees.
The coalition's steering committee has been meeting once a week for two years, Marcus said. Now, representatives from IRIS sit in on the meetings, giving advice such as how to encourage people to welcome refugees and not give out too many details about their personal lives when they arrive.
"Most have been in camps for years and have experienced trauma," she said, adding that it's the goal of the coalition to make them feel "comforted and protected."
The aim for refugees, she said, is self-sufficiency. The coalition has pulled together resources for English as a Second Language tutors, housing, employment, transportation, health care and cultural and spiritual needs.
"There's the understanding that Otsego County has been losing population for years," she said, "and we actually have hundreds of [unfilled] jobs."
Schools have fewer students and that means less in state funding. A lower taxpayer base means less tax revenue.
"For all these reasons, we need to bring people in," she said, "and refugees have been heavily vetted. They are less likely to commit crimes and more likely to add value to the community."
For more information on volunteering or hosting refugees, visit www.refugeotsego.org.