Unsettled by resettlement

Hagerstown is disturbed by the arrival of scores of refugees

October 04, 2007|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,Sun reporter

HAGERSTOWN -- Mukhabbat Gilmanova picked plastic honey bottles off the assembly line and placed them, still warm, in a cardboard box. Gilmanova, a Russian Turkish refugee with a shy smile, might seem an anomaly in this Western Maryland city that's not exactly known for its international population.

But another Meskhetian Turk works beside Gilmanova at Parker Plastics. Other packers on the shift hail from Haiti and the Ivory Coast. They are refugees, too.

In the past several years, more than 200 people, largely from countries in Africa and the former Soviet Union, have quietly landed in Hagerstown, population roughly 37,000.

Those responsible for the resettlements say the city is an appealing destination because rents are reasonable and jobs are available for these displaced people who fled their native countries to escape political or religious persecution.

"I really like Hagerstown. I really like the U.S.," said Gilmanova, 21, who lives with her husband and in-laws and is studying to be a nurse. "I like packing ... I like paycheck ... I like everything."

But her presence and the arrival of other newcomers have roiled this small city, which until recently hasn't had much experience with people who have limited English skills or worship as Muslims or find the sheer volume of goods at Wal-Mart overwhelming.

Surprise about the refugees' existence has given way to frustration and anger about a resettlement program that some residents say was expanded without proper community input. The outcry became so loud that the Virginia Council of Churches, which placed the refugees, decided last week to close its local office.

In the meantime, the refugees continue to live here - and could eventually bring other family members - and feelings on all sides are still very heated.

"The little town of Hagerstown will not have any great impact on the world's problems, but it will continue to be recognized as a place where people of different backgrounds, races and religions are not openly welcomed," George H. Miller, former coordinator at the Hagerstown Refugee Resettlement Office, wrote in a letter to the local newspaper.

"Malarkey!" said City Council member Penny May Nigh, who led the charge against more resettlements. "It's not a matter of being unfriendly, it was the concern. We are struggling. ... I think we are too stretched as a community."

The council of churches and its predecessor were for years bringing a few refugees to Western Maryland, but the number coming to Washington County began to grow about three years ago.

The program drew attention last year after a misunderstanding between a police officer and a sick Burundian woman. The woman could not speak English, and fearing a communicable disease, responders donned biohazard suits, shut down the street and set up a decontamination tent - only to discover that the woman was pregnant and had morning sickness.

Subsequently, both the Hagerstown City Council and the Washington County commissioners denied the resettlement office's requests for some local money to assist the refugees.

Residents' complaints about the program have been largely economic: There simply isn't enough - not enough jobs, services, space in schools - to go around.

Advocates countered that most refugees have jobs, pay taxes and contribute to their adopted communities.

A forum last month at Hagerstown Community College, intended to answer questions about the program, seemed only to highlight the divisions among residents.

"I don't like to see this community changed to where I can't live here anymore!" one man shouted from the audience.

"You're shoving these refugees at us," someone else said. "What about our own?"

"I don't see this as a drain. I see it as an investment in the future," said panelist Martin Ford, of the Maryland Office of New Americans, which provides support to refugees. "You're speaking as if these refugees are guests. They become Americans. ... They become us."

Irish and German immigrants, the ancestors of many in the audience, once were not accepted in the country either, said Jeanne Jacobs, 82, who emigrated from France six decades ago. "What are we doing? We're doing the same thing!" she said before stalking out of the auditorium.

Though some who fought the resettlements say Hagerstown is a dying industrial city, others paint a different picture. While some factories have shut down, other jobs - particularly in warehousing, distribution, transportation, manufacturing, insurance and financial services - have moved into the county, said Robin Ferree, of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission.

"Many of the local industries here are still hiring," Ferree said. The county lost some jobs when Mack Trucks Inc. downsized and other manufacturers closed, but since 2006, the county has gained almost 2,000 new jobs, he said.

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