Magee Interviews: Chris George, IRIS

Chris George is the Executive Director of IRIS (Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services), a government and privately funded non-profit helping refugees and other displaced people establish new lives, regain hope, and contribute to the vitality of Connecticut’s communities. 

What led you to IRIS?
I worked overseas most of my career. Beginning in 1977, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Sultanate of Oman, and that led to a job with the Quakers in Lebanon, and that led to a job with Save the Children in the Gaza strip – overall I spent about 12 years on the West Bank in Gaza, doing humanitarian work, working with refugees. I came back to the United States in 2004 and settled in Connecticut, and looked for something that would allow me to stay in Connecticut and still be involved in international work. I heard about a group called Interfaith Refugee Ministry, which is what we were called back then. They were looking for a Director and I jumped on it, and was hired in 2005.

What was behind the name change to IRIS (Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services)?
We have always thought of ourselves as being inclusive – meaning we want everyone, regardless of their Faith or lack of a Faith to join us and help welcome refugees. We felt that our name really didn’t reflect that. So we wanted to choose a name that would be more inclusive, in a way more neutral, so that’s why we settled on IRIS, and it has worked very well. When I started there were a lot of things on the walls that projected a Christian affiliation – we were started by the Episcopal diocese, and we’re proud of that, but we wanted to project an image that would attract a broader number of people. So we still have our poster of Mary & Joseph on a donkey somewhere, but up went posters of Einstein and the Statue of Liberty as well. Even when I’m speaking in a church or synagogue, I make the point that this is an American tradition – this is our oldest and most noble tradition – welcoming persecuted people, to start new lives. It’s true that it’s also a principle that is at the core of most religions – welcoming the stranger – but it is also a very American tradition. Just 3 weeks ago, a Muslim Syrian refugee family was welcomed by a collaboration of groups, including a Synagogue in Madison, a Church in Gilford and a Muslim center in New Haven. That’s why I love my job so much.

And you’re also funded by the government?
The government has always funded refugee resettlement, and there are some refugee agencies that survive mostly on or almost entirely on government funding. But we can’t do that in a place like Connecticut, maybe because the cost of living is higher, rents are higher, or maybe because we want to do more for refugees. We’ve had to raise a lot of private funds, so that was one of my most important tasks when I was hired: to increase the amount of private funding, and diversify our funding in general, to move away from an almost 90% reliance on government funding.

What are your current goals as an organization?
Our current goal is to resettle twice as many refugees this year as we did last year. We feel that if the world is going through the greatest refugee crisis since WWII, if a refugee resettlement agency has the resources and the community support, we should settle as many refugees as we possibly can. We had hoped that the US government on a national level would at least double the number of refugees brought to the US. It didn’t. It increased by only 20%. Last year we had 242 refugees. Now we’re up to about 400 refugees – we’re affiliated with the national organisations Church World Service and Episcopal Migration Ministry, and they in turn work under the state department. Those 3 entities have agreed to send us about 400, so we’re a bit short of our aim, but we’ll begin with that.

We are one of 350 independent refugee resettlement non-profits across the country, all of which are under 9 national organisations – we work with two of those nine. We are one of 3 refugee resettlement non-profits in Connecticut, and while we’re all independent, we collaborate with the other Connecticut non-profits every quarter, to share information, talk about issues, and discuss best practices. We also collaborate annually with the other refugee resettlement agencies affiliated with our national group. It’s the knowledge of that network which made us confident that the US government should double their number of refugee intakes.

We are one of 350 independent refugee resettlement non-profits across the country, all of which are under 9 national organisations – we work with two of those nine. We are one of 3 refugee resettlement non-profits in Connecticut, and while we’re all independent, we collaborate with the other Connecticut non-profits every quarter, to share information, talk about issues, and discuss best practices. We also collaborate annually with the other refugee resettlement agencies affiliated with our national groups. It’s the knowledge of that network which made us confident that the US government should double their number of refugee intakes.

What are the challenges associated with your aim of doubling numbers on a local level?
How do we make sure that the quality of our services are high – how do we maintain our services for a much larger number without burning out staff? That’s the immediate challenge that flows from that goal of doubling the number.
Another challenge is to maintain and maybe even strengthen the remarkable increase in support that we’ve received recently. We don’t want this to be a one-off. Since August there’s been enormous interest in refugee resettlement and support. It seems that the more controversial it becomes at a national level, it seems that for every xenophobic, islamophobic, bigoted remark on the national political scene, people of New Haven and Connecticut step forward to counter it with donations. And it’s becoming a political statement, stated very clearly in emails and notes we get attached to donations. People will say ‘I’m supporting you because of something Donald Trump said that was outrageous last night on TV’. So it’s very clearly a reaction to what people feel is a shameful criticism of this great national tradition, and maybe even a threat to this great tradition.

Are you concerned that interest will die down as it becomes an ‘old’ issue?
Yes, and that’s why it’s a challenge. We want to keep the momentum going – we want people who’ve never heard about us and have recently stepped forward to express an interest and support us to have their interest satisfied, to introduce them to the program at a more meaningful level, show them what we do with their funding, and keep them as sustaining supporters. That’s a big challenge.

What are the personal challenges you face?
This is the chance of a lifetime, and that’s not an exaggeration – it’s the chance of a lifetime for our organisation to take advantage of a level of interest that does not usually happen. I’m the main spokesperson for the organisation, and I don’t want to pass up opportunities to tell stories, get the word out, and get support. Evenings, weekends, whatever it takes – even interrupting my administrative work on a Friday to talk to you! Whatever it takes to solidify that connection, I feel I have to do it for the good of refugee resettlement. I’ve delegated some of it to others, who are a great asset and are very skilled at speaking and writing, but the bulk of it falls on my shoulders.

How has the organization changed structurally over time? Are you making structural changes?
That’s actually one of the questions I recently posed to the staff – the question I posed was ‘how are we going to deal with these numbers?’ is it just a case of maintaining our current structure, or should we make structural changes? We don’t fully know the answer to that, yet. There is one major change we’re making – we have traditionally used an approach to welcoming refugees called community co-sponsorship. Originally it was called congregational co-sponsorship, but we’re open to any kind of community group who wants to work with us. A community group will approach us, and say ‘we want to settle refugees’ – train us, give us your support, give us guidance along the way, and we’ll welcome a family to our community. We’ll do everything IRIS does for the family currently, but as community volunteers. We’ve worked with an average of about 2 or 3 groups a year over the last 10 years, but since August, 60 groups have approached us, and they’re serious about their interest, and they’re ready to take on the responsibility. The only reason I was able to confidently tell Washington to send us twice as many refugees is that I knew we had 60 groups all across the state who were willing to help. So that’s a structural change in a way, though it’s not a new model – it’s a scale up. We’ve now created a full time position to manage these groups, so as we move forward, we can better select groups, train them better, and support them better.

What do you wish you knew about social justice or public service when you were 20?
I wish I had a better understanding of the refugee crisis, and I wish I had known that the US government was resettling refugees. Like most Americans, I had no idea at that age. And that has been one of our goals from day one – to get the word out about refugees, and the need to welcome them.
I also wish that I had a fuller appreciation of the human rights abuses around the world, and how US foreign policy can impact that. The refugee crisis does globalize us. As soon as I graduated I joined the Peace Corps, so I became a globalist in that sense. More Americans need to have that experience, and if they can’t get it by going overseas, then they can get it by meeting people from other countries here, and begin to understand why most countries have a love-hate relationship with us. In fact, the community groups who have resettled refugees often say at the end of the 6 months that they have got a lot more out of it than even the family did, in terms of what they learned.

What do you still struggle to remember/still have to learn?
I constantly remind myself that you can have an impact on public policy – or even foreign policy. This country does allow people – regardless of whether they’re elected officials or not – to contribute to shaping public policy. Whether it’s through op-eds, or organising campaigns, or other actions we take, we can have an impact. One of the reasons we’ve taken this ambitious stand here is that we want it to be an example for other refugee agencies, for other states. We want to show that it can be done. The resources are here, and people want to engage – 60 community groups! It’s easy for people to slip into a feeling of helplessness or apathy, but you can have an impact.

What motivates you to keep going? What are you hopeful about?
One of the things that motivates most of us is that we feel we’re participating in a program that brings a bit of justice or compensation to people who have suffered persecution, or fled wars or genocide. So the root of the motivation for most of us is that when it comes to this tiny fraction of the world’s refugees who are settled here, we’re able to help them be compensated somehow. It’s never going to make up for the loss of a family member, or replace the life they had in their home country, but it is maybe a small degree of justice and compensation.
For me, it is also the most interesting and rewarding job I’ve ever had. Every day is different. It’s a generalist’s dream! To be a director of a refugee resettlement agency, you’re doing a little bit of everything, and meeting people from all over the world.

Want to find out more or get involved? Check out the Yale Refugee Project (for undergraduates). If you’re not an undergrad, head to the IRIS website for more info and volunteer opportunities.

Hannah Malcolm, M.A.R (World Christianities), Rev. John Magee Fellow at Dwight Hall


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