Courtesy of IRIS

A pineapple, a mayor and Chewbacca could be seen running through the woods of East Rock Park on Sunday morning.

They were participating in the annual 5K Run for Refugees in support of New Haven’s Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, also known as IRIS.

After IRIS Executive Director Chris George’s countdown to start the race, those three and 3,202 fellow runners — a record turnout for the run — rocketed off the starting line in front of Wilbur Cross High School toward the Mill River and East Rock. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-New Haven, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz joined Mayor Justin Elicker and George in giving remarks to gather runners and bystanders ahead of the start. Aidan Pillard ’20 took first place honors in Sunday’s 13th annual event. Post-race, runners and spectators alike enjoyed the food, drink and live music from a litany of New Haven restaurants and other sponsors.

“I ran 16:18, which I was pretty happy with, and had a couple people to run alongside pretty much the whole way, which always makes a race more fun. A motorcycle accident in the summer kept me from running much in the fall, so the race felt like a good indicator of my recovery,” Pillard told the News. “I ran today because I wanted to support the amazing work that the staff at IRIS do each day.”

The best race day weather ever accompanied this year’s race, according to George. The event dates back to George’s arrival as executive director 14 years ago. The first iteration only featured 360 runners, while the 2017 race represented the biggest jump in participation for the race, as it came shortly after President Donald Trump’s travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries went into effect. The racecourse, roughly a figure eight, takes runners into East Rock Park and out onto neighborhood streets before doubling back into the park and ending in front of Wilbur Cross.

The race is IRIS’ only fundraiser and helps the resettlement agency ensure its financial stability. The funds from the race go towards resettling refugees in New Haven and Connecticut. In addition, the nonprofit extends employment and legal services to immigrants throughout Greater New Haven. Around 60 Yalies volunteer at IRIS each year through the Yale Refugee Project.

The Run for Refugees also serves to spread IRIS’s mission and gives New Haven residents a chance to welcome and celebrate refugees to the Elm City.

“For the past 14 years, the crowd has gotten larger and larger,” George told the crowd gathered at the starting line. “What does that mean? It means Connecticut welcomes refugees and immigrants and we’re sending a message across the country, maybe directed toward Washington more than anywhere else, that says we are a welcoming nation.”

For the second year in a row, the Yale Undergraduate Gospel Choir sang Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” — the poem that graces the base of the Statue of Liberty — to kick off the race after the local political leaders gave remarks.

“The record number of people today shows that we continue that spirit of making sure that people that are struggling around the world have a home in New Haven,” Elicker told the crowd on Sunday. “I’ve been here for one month as mayor. And as far as I have seen, the only thing that’s gotten worse is my running time. I look forward to trying to beat you all and I hope you try to beat me. Thank you for contributing to IRIS and have a great race.”

After the race, both of Wilbur Cross’ gyms were filled with runners and attendees sampling local food and listening to live music provided by Thabisa Rich and others. Refugee-powered Havenly Treats served baklava, while other chefs cooked up worldly fare in the school’s cafeteria. The longest line was reserved for Rawa, a Mediterranean fusion restaurant located in Westville.

New this year were activities for children to learn about refugees and migration. According to Ann O’Brien, director of community engagement at IRIS, Sunday’s event also featured local bookseller People Get Ready, which had books by and about refugees.

There was also a post-race private party hosted at East Rock Brewery, with chefs from Sanctuary Kitchen.

“Personally, it was my first official 5K. You can really feel the community coming together and in the sense that they really cared about the runners, they really wanted them to keep pushing forward,” said Susan Chen ’20, who organized the Morse student fundraiser for the race. “It was very empowering to run together as a group, and in the end to be able to contribute some amount of money to a greater cause like that was pretty incredible.”

Many residential colleges sponsored runners in the race, and students led fundraisers to support IRIS. According to the race website, Saybrook College raised the most among Yale groups at $2,040. Overall, the event garnered $79,278 in donations.

IRIS was founded as the Diocesan Refugee Services Committee in 1982.

Jose Davila IV | jose.davilaiv@yale.edu