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Refugees Welcome in Blacksburg, VA


When the executive order banning Muslims from 7 countries from coming to the U.S. was announced last Friday, the town of Blacksburg had been awaiting the arrival of second Syrian refugee family. They never got on the plane. But that’s not stopping a group of volunteers who spontaneously got together last summer to host the first refugee family in this small college town.  

Susan Verbrugge says it all started last summer.

“We keep seeing these pictures, we keep   hearing these stories of horrors happening to folks from Syria and so we finally got together and said we’re going to do something. So three of us met one week and then the following week six of us met. Two weeks later we had a meeting at the Blacksburg library for anybody that was interested ---we just kind of cast a net---and we had over a hundred people.”

They worked with Roanoke Catholic Charities, one of the groups approved by the state department to bring refugees in.

Families must pay their own way to this country.  In most situations, they’re virtually on their own in a new city, but the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership wanted to do things differently. 

It raised most of the $40,000 it will take to support the family in Blacksburg for a year. A small army of people also donated their time helping them get settled and acclimated - even finding a job for the father of eight. His salary also goes toward that sum. 

The kids are in school.  The family goes to the local mosque and they’re getting acclimated to life here. The family has asked for privacy and we didn’t speak with them for this report, but people see them around town all the time. 

“It’s been neat to see the oldest child, who is in high school really become the leader in his family. I was in the grocery store a few weeks ago and saw him doing some grocery shopping for his family by himself.  When he got to the checkout counter, I noticed that he was helping the woman in front of him figure out how to do the self-check out. So, just within a few months, here is this kid who has learned English and he’s learned the customs and he’s learned how to navigate a grocery store and is now helping other people."

Everyone was excited to be bringing another Syrian family to town - this one currently living in a Jordanian refugee camp. They were supposed to be on a plane in January, but a snowstorm postponed their trip. Jane Aronson is another volunteer with the Blacksburg Refugee project.

“We had a place for them to stay, a deposit down, furniture collected. all the supplies collected last weekend. Then the executive order was signed and I just can’t imagine what they’re thinking."

But Aronson knows what the partnership is thinking - that it has transformed a group of people into its own social service-welcome wagon group in a matter of months. Volunteer Khaled Hassouna says when they first came together to start the refugee project it seemed daunting.

“Our fears had calmed down. It has been rewarding to see how things can gel together how people can really flow together.  And suddenly, we don’t really see any of the differences that our eyes can see.”

After all they’ve done, the executive order banning people from 7 predominantly Muslim countries from coming to the U.S. for the next few months has been hard to take.

Jane Aronson and Khaled Hassouna both agree. “I think we’ve all been in tears, different days of the week.”

“I can tell you it has been a very long week.”

The Refugee Project is not giving up. While they wait and hope for the ban to be lifted, they’re looking for another family already in this country who might want to become part of the Blacksburg community.

Blacksburg Refugee Project