Yale Daily News

Even amid a global pandemic, Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services began its largest fundraising campaign — the annual IRIS Run for Refugees, last week. 

The fundraiser, a virtual 5K run, is taking place from Jan. 30 to Feb. 14. It replaces the traditional Run for Refugees, which has historically occurred on the first weekend of February. As the organization’s largest fundraiser, it aims to raise awareness and funds for the community of refugees that has settled in New Haven as part of the U.S. Resettlement Program. Funds help pay for the organization’s programs statewide. 

“Even though it’s pitched as a road race, it is really supposed to be a community celebration,” 

Ann O’Brien, IRIS Director of Community Engagement, told the News. 

For a regular year’s race, O’Brien said, “There might be elite runners at the front of the pack but there is a strong section of families pushing strollers and walking together… It’s something anybody can do.”

The Run for Refugees fundraiser began 15 years ago after IRIS’ executive director Chris George aimed to convert the organization into a non-profit unit — it was owned and operated by an Episcopal church — and garner a larger base of support. The money raised from the run is able to help IRIS’ clients, people whose needs can alter quickly. Unlike funds it received from grants, IRIS money raised through the run is unrestricted and can be used immediately at the organization’s discretion. 

Grant applications take time to write and cannot always be relied on, O’Brien said, making funds from the run essential. Last year, she said the IRIS employed the funds to meet the sudden increase in demand at its food pantry given the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The run began in 2006 with about 250-300 participants. Last year, it witnessed its highest count ever, drawing 3,200 participants and an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 spectators. This year, the two-week-long event has 1,654 participants thus far and has raised $75,000 towards its $100,000 goal.

O’Brien attributed her staff’s dedication to adapt the Run for Refugees to a virtual setting to a resilience she said they learned from the New Haveners they serve. She added that IRIS did not focus on the drawbacks of a virtual setting and instead focused on how the remote nature of this year’s race could make fundraising easier.

This year, IRIS sent all participants running bibs and encouraged them to post photos of their running locations on social media. 

“We’ve been sharing those with everybody in our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and our newsletters to really encourage everybody to get into the spirit of it,” O’Brien said. “When they start seeing that, it starts giving them a sense that if I get my shirt, and I get my picture out there, I’m part of something bigger, like a movement.”

IRIS’ refugee clients also curated Spotify playlists for participants to listen to while they go on their 5K journeys. The playlists include music from Afghanistan, Burundi, Iraq and Syria.

Amanda Dettmer, an Associate Research Scientist at the Yale Child Study Center, has participated in the Run for Refugees for two years. This year, although Dettmer noticed the absence of the camaraderie she once expected from the event, she found a silver lining in the event’s virtual nature.

“One good part about it is that runners have two weeks to complete their 5K’s, so I was able to do it on my own time, at my own pace, and where I wanted,” Dettmer wrote in an email to the News. “That was a big help, as I completed it yesterday in the sunny weather versus today in the snowstorm! That said, I’m looking forward to having the normal race day back, hopefully next year.”

The Run for Refugee virtual run and fundraising campaign will continue until Feb. 14. Potential participants can register to run and or donate through the organization’s website.

“Welcoming refugees — this is what this country is all about,” refugee advocate and actor 

Sam Waterston said in the online fundraising event. “They strengthen the economy, but also honestly the main reason for helping is that it’s the right thing to do. It’s a simple thing.”

In 2020, IRIS worked with 120 refugees and immigrants in Connecticut, helping them find work, secure housing and learn English, art and music.

Razel Suansing | razel,suansing@yale,edu

Razel Suansing is a staff reporter and producer for the City, YTV, and Magazine desks. She covers cops and courts, specifically state criminal justice reform efforts, the New Haven Police Department, and the Yale Police Department. Originally from Manila, Philippines, she is a first-year in Davenport College, majoring in Global Affairs.