Taking Refuge

in Features
Chris George smiles in his office at IRIS.

In 1989, a Palestinian extremist walked into an office in the Gaza Strip and kidnapped Chris George. George had been working for Save the Children, an international humanitarian organization that provides food, medical care, and education for children in need. “He liked me,” George said of his kidnapper. “He was just using me for political ends.” George was a prominent American, and the extremist had been to the organization’s office to discuss the construction of a kindergarten in the man’s refugee camp.. After thirty-five hours, George was released and given a thirteen-page letter for then President George H. W. Bush criticizing US support for Israel. The Israeli secret service killed the extremist a week later.

After his release, George said in an interview, “They were nice to me. I practiced my Arabic during this period, I ate my food – fish.” George handles things stoically, which has also helped him navigate the uncertain terrain of refugee resettlement in New Haven.

“Again? 3-2-1?”

“3-2-1.”

The documentary crew, three students from Southern Connecticut University, started filming outside the Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services building, or IRIS. George, now IRIS’s executive director for the last seven years, was wearing white khaki pants, a gray shirt, black shoes, and a brown belt. He has gray hair, wears glasses, and has a mustache. The pin on his shirt said “support refugees,” in bright pink letters. He wore a black digital watch and used the earbuds on his iPhone to make phone calls.

“Welcome to IRIS,” he said, “and we are your refugee integration service.” The crew stopped filming and they walked inside the building. George started to clean up the mess in the front room, which was filled with plastic bags full of clothes and scattered papers and magazines. “We get a lot of donations,” he said with a laugh. IRIS has served almost five thousand refugees from Iraq, Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia over the past twenty-five years, and each year they work with about two hundred new clients, about a third of all the refugees who enter Connecticut, George told the filmmakers. Since 1980, Connecticut has resettled twenty-eight thousand refugees. According to the US Department of State, three million refugees have come to the US since 1975, more than twice the combined total number of refugees accepted by the nine other countries with resettlement programs. But the US still only resettles less than one percent of the 16 million refugees worldwide.

Reading those numbers, I was struck by the enormity of the task of resettlement. I couldn’t help but think of the old tale about an old man who walked down the beach and saw a child returning washed-up starfish to the ocean. When the old man told the child his actions wouldn’t make a difference, the boy picked up another starfish and threw it back in saying, “I made a difference for that one.” I have trouble understanding how anyone can have that child’s attitude toward such astounding numbers. Where does that sense of duty and obligation come from? But George seems less interested in speaking to me about the source of his relentless commitment than about the necessity of this work for the refugees he assists. His steady approach helps his clients find routine in a process loaded with insecurity.

Inside the IRIS building, there were two Iraqi refugees sitting in the main reception office and four African refugees in a large room to the side, working with a volunteer to fill out applications. The Iraqis appeared to be husband and wife, middle aged. George asked for their permission to be filmed, but they shook their heads. The camera crew moved into the office, and they started filming with the refugees behind them. “Our job is to help them be self-sufficient,” George said. “We are so fortunate to get incredible volunteers: high schools, synagogues, even our clients are volunteers.” In the food pantry down the hall, families can come in to get two bags of groceries every Wednesday. Since it was Thursday, the room was empty.

A woman walked up to George and said, “So far so good?”

“So far so great.”

The crew asked him to stand by a wall near the reception area and give them an introduction to the work IRIS does. George smiled and began to deliver a speech on what they do at IRIS. A large part of George’s job is public speaking and outreach. He’s a comfortable and relaxed public speaker, but he stumbled at the end and the crew stopped filming. They asked him to try again, and George gave the same speech, word for word, the words seeming to come naturally:

“A refugee is someone who has a well founded fear of persecution. Hopefully, some go back to the country they fled from if the persecution ends. Some integrate in the country they fled to. And some come here and work with us. We meet them at the airport, send them to a furnished apartment. We help these new Americans get off to a good start. That’s our job, to make them self-sufficient. This is a lifesaving program.”

George let the film crew take some footage around the office and then sat down on a couch in the reception area next to me.

“Sometimes,” he said, “I wish we were back to the no-press policy, but I just got off the phone with a major apartment complex. They’d never heard of refugee integration. They’re giving us a great price for a three- to four-bedroom apartment, and they want to do more business with us.” George said this isn’t a typical day at the IRIS office, and I asked what a typical day would be like. He smiled and said that there is nothing routine about refugee resettlement.

Chris George returns a phone call in his office.

I met George weeks earlier at a local café. His shirt-sleeves were rolled to his elbow and he was carrying a worn-out planner. He apologized for being late; one of IRIS’ clients had called because the client’s roommate, an elderly refugee from Iraq, had left without telling anyone where he’d gone. George went over to the apartment, but there was nothing he could do. All business, George opened his planner on the table: he would be at a refugee resettlement conference with three hundred other non-profits all of next week, a meeting at Quinnipiac on April 10, a meeting in new London at 7 p.m. three days later, and on Monday, he would be welcoming a family of seven from Darfur.

“You could come to that,” he said. George gave me a list of his colleagues to talk to while he was away, and after second thought added Ron Berger to the list, his best friend since third grade. Berger knows him well, and was the only person on the list George didn’t know from work.

I called Berger on a Thursday morning. “Can you hear me okay? I’m in my truck,” he said. Berger teaches a course at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and he drives there every week from his home in Amherst, Massachusetts. He worked as a public school teacher for ten years, and works as the Chief Program Officer of Expeditionary Learning, an organization that opens schools and partners with existing ones in urban and rural schools to improve the quality of struggling school districts.

Berger said that even as a boy growing up, George was magnetic. “Chris has a mythic and heroic quality,” he said. George was an all-American athlete and ran cross-country before being recruited for the lacrosse team, where he was co-captain and an all-star player, a state champ in high school and the first string all American midfield. “Every year,” Berger said, “Chris goes back to Montclair for the alumni lacrosse game. They play a game against guys who are twenty-eight or twenty-one. He’s fifty-eight and plays against them. He has this great 1970’s lacrosse shirt, the same shirt he wore when he was in high school. He’s playing this alumni game in this old antique shirt.” His long-term loyalty to the team shows a doggedness of character, a man who never gives up.

Berger recalled getting into his truck in 1989, turning on his radio and hearing the first story on NPR. It was about George’s kidnapping. He had been the first foreigner kidnapped in Israel for political reasons, making it national news. Berger had been shocked, and now so was I. In the few weeks I had spent talking to George about the significant details of his life, he had never mentioned being kidnapped.

I stopped by George’s office a few days later. The walls were covered with newspaper clippings: a headline from the New Haven Register reads “Iraqi refugees find America challenging,” another, “Wars toll heavy for many Iraqi children,” and finally, “Afghan refugees now happily resettled.” An Indiana Jones hat sits on a basketball on top of a bookshelf in the corner. I asked why he had never told me he was kidnapped by terrorists.

“I don’t like the word terrorist.” George sighed. “I was abducted, I guess it was a kidnapping. It was only thirty-five hours. I don’t know if I’d call them terrorists. It was very short. I would never ever put myself in the very unlucky number of people who were held for a long time. I was never tortured, they treated me very well.” It was an uncomfortable subject and he was visibly upset when he told me the extremist was killed a week later.

Kelly Hebrank started working at IRIS eight months before George took over as executive director, and has known him since he interviewed for the job. “From the beginning,” Hebrank said, “he made the impression of having energy.” She explained to me that the general attitude at IRIS had been that because immigration was highly controversial, they would work diligently, but quietly. George changed that. Though George had complained to me earlier about the elimination of a no-press policy, he was the one who had gotten rid of it. “Before Chris,” Hebrank said, “If I said I worked at IRIS, nobody knew what I was talking about.”

I asked Hebrank if she knew him outside of the office. She laughed and said, “We work a lot.”

Later that day, George met with me in a small side room down the hall because two of his colleagues were having a phone conference in his office. George told me he wished IRIS had money for a larger building because they don’t have enough office space. Their last building, he said, was about a quarter this size. There was only enough room for their desks and virtually no room for meeting spaces for the refugees. We were in one of the meeting rooms for refugees, which has cinderblock walls, and George was sitting at a white plastic table with folding chairs. He told me that he always makes a point of mentioning Montclair, New Jersey. “It really did have a formative impact on my life,” George said. “It’s why I’m doing what I’m doing now.”

George’s mother, a former nurse, and his father, a former broadcast journalist at ABC, moved to Montclair when George was in the third grade. His classmates called the their home the “mad scientist house,” because it was giant and broken-down, believed to be haunted. Since George was eight, he would come home from school and work for hours, fixing it up with his father.

During the town’s racial desegregation of high schools, which began in 1966, George was bussed from the white to the black part of town for school. Navigating racial tension was an early practice for cross-cultural understanding, and it made him develop an appreciation for diversity and tolerance.

George studied history and anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania , where he met his wife, Elizabeth, during the first week of school. After graduation, he joined the Peace Corps in 1977, assigned to volunteer in Oman. Elizabeth initially planned on staying in the US to pursue a career in art. “After a few months of desert in the Arabian Peninsula, we decided we did not like being apart.” George said. “Oman is a very conservative country. The only way she could come was if we got married.” They both traveled to Cyprus, where they married in 1978. Elizabeth went back to Oman with him and worked as a darkroom technician in George’s office.

“Montclair was my formative experience. For my children, it was growing up in the West Bank,” George said, referring to his stint there for Save the Children Foundation. The oldest is an associate producer for NPR. She has produced stories in Iraq, Egypt, and in Libya during the fall of Gadhafi. George’s second child is twenty-four and works in Sierra Leon as a Peace Corps volunteer. His youngest studied drama at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, from which he recently graduated.

After two years in the Peace Corps, George returned to Philadelphia, working as a plumber, bartender, and substitute teacher. In 1982, George left for Lebanon, working with Quakers in housing reconstruction in Lebanese villages and refugee camps until 1984. In 1985, George began working as the Manager of the Gaza office of Save the Children Foundation, and in 1988 became Save The Children’s Director of the entire West Bank / Gaza Strip. He worked with Save the Children for nine years. He spent the first half of that time in the West Bank in Gaza, and the second half at the organization’s headquarters in Westport, Conn. After the kidnapping in 1989, Chris stayed for another year before moving back to work as the Acting Director for the Middle East Region.  After leaving the organization in 1994, he became director of the Middle East division of Human Rights Watch until 1996. For the next four  years after that, he was a director of the United States Agency for International Development’s legislative strengthening project with the Palestinian Parliament. Then, for three years on a USAID contract, George ran an organization that gave grants to Palestinian non-profits.  From 2003 to 2004, he did volunteer work, consulting, and writing in Connecticut on legislative issues. George has been at IRIS since 2005.

George has gone back and forth from the US to the Middle East for the last twenty-five years. “You get stuck,” he told me, “Whether you like it or not, the jobs you’re qualified for are in the Middle East.” But George didn’t just get stuck. He has chosen to work in one of the most politically, religiously and economically sensitive areas in the world.

The family of seven from Darfur had arrived at an apartment a few blocks away from a synagogue the night before we met them. Several women from the synagogue had volunteered to help them, and had spent the last week gathering dishware and utensils, arranging the furniture, and gathering clothes. The women had arrived earlier, and George was coming to welcome the family and bring donations. George meets with every refugee IRIS works with.

The apartment was the left half of a white two-story house in the Westville neighborhood of New Haven. A woman from the synagogue stood on the porch as the others grabbed the dinner from their car. George knocked on the door, and a tall, dark, thin man with a moustache stepped out. He was excited to see George, and they began to speak in Arabic. They smiled, and the man welcomed us inside.

The family fled from Darfur to Egypt in 2006. The two youngest daughters, five-year-old Mariam and two-year-old Aya, had never seen Darfur. That’s how long it can take for a family of refugees to resettle in the United States.

The living room had hardwood floors and was nearly empty except for a sofa and a small bookshelf. A tall woman wearing a long dress stood by the kitchen door, and a small child poked his head from behind her. George spoke with the woman, and then leaned into the next room, speaking English. The thirteen-year-old son, Badreldin, also spoke English, and George encouraged him to come out and say hello. Small and skinny, he slowly walked to the women. One of the women from the synagogue pulled a picture dictionary from a bag. He showed it to his mother, and she smiled.

George spoke with the man in Arabic, pointing at the floor then at a table. Finally, the man pointed to the floor. George motioned to me and I followed him outside to the back of his Jeep 4×4. “We’re going to bring the TV inside.” We lifted it together and brought it to where the man had pointed. One of the volunteers was giving the wife a bag of food they had prepared for them. On each of the plastic containers, there was the name of the dish in English and then Arabic; one of the women from the synagogue had used Google Translate to make labels. After everything was brought into the home, the couple walked us to the door and thanked us again. He shook hands with George.

As George drove me back home, I asked him what he had been saying to the family in Arabic. He said, little things, like where to put the TV, introducing the women, telling them they brought food. We were silent for a moment, and George said that they use the immigrant integration experience as a blueprint for refugee resettlement. It’s a difficult process, but it’s always that way. His job was just to make them self-sufficient, because IRIS doesn’t have enough resources to take care of them indefinitely. IRIS resettles them, and the refugees take care of themselves. It is the American Dream: self-reliance, hard work, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.

“My grandfather was an immigrant,” George said. His grandfather’s last name was originally Georgacopoulis. “It makes us proud and strong. That’s how it is in America. It’s very rare to say ‘He didn’t make it.’”

I asked about the missing Iraqi roommate. George explained that the man, who has since moved back to the US, had flown to the Middle East to try to meet with his family in Jordan. But George wasn’t sure what he would be going back to. I asked if the man’s leaving like that was discouraging, but George responded stoically that it rarely happens. For a second, I thought I saw a look of defeat as George sighed and watched his boulder roll back down the mountain. But it was only a second. I knew that whether it was at IRIS or anywhere else, George will always roll it back up again. George was expecting six refugees from Eritrea that needed an apartment, food, clothes, and tutors to teach them English. His refugees needed health insurance, food stamps, social security numbers, and help filling out job applications. They needed to learn where to buy groceries, that squirrels are not rats, that dogs are not wild animals, and that joggers aren’t running away from anything. There is nothing routine about refugee resettlement.

Correction: September 15th, 2012

An earlier version of this article contained several factual errors. George was kidnapped in the Gaza Strip, not the West Bank; he joined the Peace Corps in 1977, not 1997; in 1985 George began working as the Manager of the Gaza office of Save the Children, not as a director; and in 1988, not 1986, George became director of the entire West Bank / Gaza Strip program, not the Left Bank program.

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