The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)
Refugees: ‘We thought we were safe’
Resettlement was frozen for months following attacks
On Sept. 1, 2001, the First Congregational Church of Guilford opened Melita House, a welcome house for refugees, working with the resettlement agency now known as Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services.
“We had four families from Bosnia [who] were our first residents,” said Linda Carleton, the first director, who now lives in Portland, Maine. The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina lasted from 1992 to 1995, and refugees typically wait years to be resettled.
Just 10 days later, the Bosnians were taking an English class at Christ Episcopal Church nearby. “I saw the twin towers fall, and I got a call from the English teacher and she said, maybe it would be better if I came” and walked the refugees home.
“I told them there’d been an attack,” Carleton said. “When we got home we turned on the television … and we all just sat, and one of the women was silent and another was sobbing and the one who spoke the most English said in broken English … to the effect of, ‘We come from terror. We thought we were safe.’ ”
The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon 20 years ago had a more direct effect on an Afghan refugee who was on her way to the United States. “We got word that she was in the air at the time of the attack and her plane just did a U-turn and went back to a city in Pakistan that she had never been to,” Carleton said.
“They escorted her out of the airplane, and she was alone,” she said. “Then she eventually did come to Melita House. For a long time, refugee resettlement was halted, at least until January or February.”
Melita House began to focus on Afghan refugees after the U.S. invasion, and held a dinner with other Afghans who lived on the Shoreline, to help the refugees feel welcome. One woman “said how the Taliban had hijacked Islam and had hijacked her country.”
The 9/11 attacks “changed the whole atmosphere of … optimism and excitement to one of very great anxiety within the house and for the refugee resettlement agency … and for us starting this endeavor and not knowing what was going to happen.” IRIS was known as Interfaith Refugee Ministries at the time.
Carleton, who painted watercolors depicting the refugees she helped welcome, left Melita House in 2008 and later founded an agency to support people seeking asylum in Portland, known as Hope Acts.
Linda Bronstein, a senior case manager with IRIS, is its longest-serving employee, having been with the agency 25 years. She said Carleton called her “saying, we had an appointment to come in on the bus to meet with you today, but I’m not sure we ought to do it today.”
“My first reaction was, it can’t be that bad. That’s in New York. It’s a couple hours away.”
Then Bronstein realized, “Now we know how the rest of the world feels. We’ve never experienced this, but in a lot of places this happens quite frequently for our clients. It was very frightening, very upsetting, because this is the type of thing they experience in their home countries.”
Bronstein also saw Americans’ positive reaction to refugees after the attacks, though. “I remember an Afghan couple that had arrived just before that happened, and of course all government offices shut down for a couple days,” she said.
“When the Social Security office opened up
again, I had to take this Afghan couple to the office to apply for their Social Security numbers,” she said. “I wondered what reception we were going to get, the wife wearing a hijab. It was very clear they were newcomers and Muslims.”
But as they went through security and into the office, Bronstein said, “I was pleasantly surprised. … I imagine that my being there helped but there weren’t any questions or funny looks.”