Seven hundred and forty runners and walkers gathered at the starting line adjacent to Wilbur Cross High School yesterday morning for the Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services’ annual Run for Refugees.
The event, now in its eighth year, drew a crowd of roughly 1,000 — including lifelong Connecticut residents, refugees who only started learning English in the last year and dozens of Yale students — and raised at least $28,000, according to IRIS Deputy Director Kelly Hebrank. Senator Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73, Mayor Toni Harp and Oni Chuckwu, the president of the Africa Plan Foundation — this year’s top sponsor — all delivered opening remarks, praising IRIS’s success in resettling refugees in New Haven and urging local residents to volunteer.
After crossing the finish line, runners socialized in the gym over live music and food — the majority of which was provided by local businesses.
“It’s amazing how many people haven’t heard of us and what we do,” said IRIS Employer Outreach Specialist Owen Davis. “Once people understand what we do, they’re very supportive. That’s the nice thing about this event, it brings together both types of people.”
IRIS, a program based out of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut and a local affiliate of Episcopal Migration Ministries, provides services to help refugees adjust to their new communities, including helping them obtain Social Security cards and health examinations and hosting English language classes.
Yale student Harper Loonsk ’18, an IRIS volunteer, said attending the run was a great way for Yalies to connect to the community, both through volunteering and participating in the event.
Project Manager Becky Paugh said the run also helps motivate refugees to exercise and pursue a more active lifestyle. She said many of the refugees come from warm regions where running is not part of the culture, but they find themselves lacing up for the winter run and then making exercise a routine. For example, Ibrahim Yusic, a Sudanese refugee, ran for the first time last year and now gets out regularly.
“We make this fun, even though there is really nothing fun about the refugee crisis,” said IRIS Executive Director Chris George. “There are probably about 18 million refugees in the world today, they’ve suffered horrible persecution, and a tiny fraction of them, the luckier ones, they have a chance to settle in the United States, and even once they get here, it’s still a struggle. Sure, they’re not being tortured, they’re not being persecuted, but it’s still tough.”
Davis pointed out that many aspects of daily life that people take for granted, such as communication and transportation, can be extreme obstacles for refugees completely unfamiliar with American culture and the English language.
That is why the event, which is also a great place for refugees to get to know the local community, is so important, according to Paugh. Yusic, for example, said he has found running to be a fun way to stay healthy and make new friendships in his community.
In addition to bonds forged in the community, George said the run is also helpful in showing the refugee community that the city of New Haven cares about their cause.
“The best thing our country does is the tradition of welcoming refugees, and IRIS is a thriving program here in New Haven,” George said. “You have this great combination of local community and government … in many ways, refugee settlement is very local, but it doesn’t happen unless there’s a strong government.”
According to IRIS, about 550 refugees enter Connecticut each year, and IRIS helps resettle approximately 215 of them.