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City eyed as potential location for refugee resettlement

The potential benefits of Jamestown becoming a resettlement location for refugees was discussed Thursday evening during a well-attending gathering at St Luke’s Episcopal Church.

The get together included representatives from a host of local and regional nonprofits and organizations and has been several months in the making. The discussion Thursday centered on refugees — people who have fled war, violence or conflict and are seeking safety in another country — and whether Jamestown has the resources available to welcome them.

“When we started to see an increase of refugees across the states, we heard a lot of comments, got a lot of emails, a lot of phone calls about ways our community could help and support those refugees,” Mayor Eddie Sundquist told a crowd of about 50 at St. Lukes. “It’s not often that we would see refugees here in the city, but as you all know we are a city built on immigration, built on a melting pot of different people, different ideas. That’s what made us strong many, many years ago and could make us even stronger as we continue.”

City officials have been in contact with Journey’s End, a refugee resettlement agency in Buffalo. Sundquist said on average, Journey’s End takes in about 500 refugees a year; this year they are also expecting an additional 500 refugees.

An issue arising in the Buffalo area for resettlement, Sundquist said following talks with Journey’s End, is the increase in housing costs. Resettlement agencies receive a set amount of money per refugee to assist them with housing, groceries and travel.

“Since they couldn’t even find housing, many of the refugees are actually being put up in hotels in the Buffalo area until they are able to find suitable housing,” the mayor said.

Another issue is finding refugees employment. Resettlement agencies typical provide a commitment for 90 days, with refugees and their families then becoming self-sustaining. “So they were seeing a lot of issues trying to find employers, especially employers willing to take refugees,” Sundquist said.

Journey’s End began looking to Niagara County to resettle refugees coming to the United States. While housing wasn’t an issue there, Sundquist said he was told employers were not as supportive to the idea.

That’s where Jamestown could enter the picture.

“So we talked a little bit about what would it take to be able to bring refugees to the city,” said Sundquist, who noted five major challenges that would need to be addressed: available housing, employment, education, health care and language barriers.

“I want to be very clear here in the city’s role,” the mayor said. “As the city, we’re not here to put together a program. I like to kind of think about this as a faucet, right? The city’s role is to help turn on the faucet. But we don’t want to turn that faucet on unless the bucket holding the water, the community, is ready for that. We want to make sure as the city that bucket, our community, can handle that, is ready for it, can provide support for those refugees before we help turn the faucet on, start the water and really bring people to this area.”

The mayor’s administration has been working with resettlement agencies, including Journey’s End, to look into establishing a pilot program in Jamestown. If it’s found the city has the right resources in place — appropriate housing, workforce development, health care and educational partners — as many as 20 refugees could be brought over initially.

Sundquist said the pilot program could help set the framework for the community “embracing diversity.”

Several in attendance at St. Lukes spoke to the challenges that would need to be addressed before the city moves forward. Regarding housing, it was noted that rent prices are very affordable in the city, though availability was discussed. As for employment, many alluded to all the open jobs within the county. For health care, there are organizations such as The Chautauqua Center that receive federal funds to assist the community gain access to medical care.

Then there’s education.

“I like change, and I love the idea of an influx of new folks with new experiences and new perspectives,” said Dr. Kevin Whitaker, Jamestown Public Schools superintendent, who was in attendance Thursday.

He added: “The school really should be, and we strive to be, and we’re working to build us as a backbone of the community. One of those things is making sure we serve the entire community.”

Also raised was the topic of safety for the refugees, with some stating that not everyone in the community may be as open to the idea of refugees settling in the city. Chautauqua County Sheriff James Quattrone, also in attendance, said safety is a legitimate concern that would need to be taken into account.

Sundquist said his administration would take all the notes and input received Thursday and continue working with state and local partners on establishing a pilot program. Another community meeting could be set in the next couple of weeks.

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