We're Mad as Hell, and...

And, we're not going to take it anymore.

Over the past few years, I've written at least one column a year defending our new Ukrainian refugee population. And, they are refugees, not just immigrants. Refugees fleeing from horrors and humiliation in their homelands, generally forced to leave, not leaving by choice.

They, like our ancestors deserve a better life, and, hundreds of them are making our city their new home.

That, precisely, is the problem. Hundreds of them. And our city needs help in accommodating them. Help from the Federal Government, help from the state's health department, help from the state's education department. And relief from Lutheran Social Services of West Springfield, which has the Federal contract (read, money) that brings these refugees to our door.

Now, don't read this wrong. I want it understood, that I, personally, welcome these newcomers to our City. They add a new diversity, they are generally hard working, eager to become part of our way of life, quick to learn our language, anxious to buy a home, and have firm religious convictions. And I will continue to defend them to those people who think they should not be here.

Further, I recognize the difficulties Lutheran Social Services faces and all the good work they do.

But. And, here comes the hard part. But, this city of some 40,000 people needs financial support to provide the services these people, primarily Ukrainians, need and deserve. Services like housing, health care, and education, including bilingual services.

At a meeting last week, Mayor Rick Sullivan, Congressman John Olver, State Senator Michael Knapik and I sat down with state and public services officials to discuss the challenges that Westfield is facing.

Some examples, hitting only the highlights, or, lowlights, follow.

Health care. Some 40 percent of the refugees test positive for tuberculosis. This does not mean that they have tuberculosis, only that they test positive, which means they may have been exposed to it, that they may just carry traces of the old fashioned inoculations still used in their homeland, or that they may, indeed, develop the disease in the future. Maybe even 80 years from now.

So they have to be tested, retested, and receive follow up care and instruction on prevention.

The state, we were told, has 22 public health workers. But, only one and a half are in the western part of the state. They don't have adequate staff to help Westfield's one public health nurse.

Education. There are state formula grants for education. The state gets $7-million annually. We learned at the meeting that we get 25 percent of the refugees; we get one percent of the grants.

Our school system has added 165 refugee students since last February. Our additional state aid? Just $109 per student. Yet, we have to hire five new teachers to serve them by next September.

The State receives millions in federal funds for refugee and immigration services. But, to no one's surprise, the spokesperson for the Office of Refugees and Immigration admitted that most of the money goes to Suffolk County. And, she inferred, we out here in the hinterlands just weren't eligible for more funding, or to apply for more grants, she said, applications for which had to be funneled through her office (a claim denied by the Congressman's office and state health officials).

Housing. The mayor simply pointed out severe overcrowding and that we do not have the facilities to provide adequate, safe, housing. Further, he charged, there was no monitoring to ensure that the refugees had adequate facilities.

In sheer numbers alone, something is seriously wrong.

The Congressman's statistics show that, out of 70,000 total refugees coming to this country annually, about 20,000 are from the Ukraine. Ten percent of those, approximately 2,000 or 2,400, come to Massachusetts. And, Westfield and West Springfield are taking 40 to 65 percent of the entire state's caseload.

Other statistics claim only 1,200 Ukrainian arrivals in the State annually, with Westfield taking about a sixth of them. Or, 200 a year. But, in the last six months of 1998, 205 arrived in Westfield. Which would mean we are absorbing a third of them. Still other statistics show that in the last six months, Westfield accepted 202 of the 462 total arrivals in the four Western counties.

Do we have the solutions? First of all, it's money. And your officials are working with the state and federal governments to try to obtain more funding for health, housing and education. But it's a slow process, and one we couldn't plan for earlier, because we didn't understand the problem in terms of sheer numbers.

Secondly, we have to make Lutheran Social Services understand that they have to spread the immigrants around--in Holyoke, Southwick, Greenfield, Northampton. In cities where no new refugees have been assigned. And, further, to provide follow up services, such as translation, supervision of housing, and grant applications to help us pay the bills.

Then, we can truly welcome our new Ukrainian friends to Westfield. Maybe, like Brookline, we can even begin to think about establishing sports programs, soccer teams for example, for our Russian speaking children.

Meanwhile, we are mad as hell....and, we're not going to take it any more. But, we will, I promise you, continue to seek solutions.

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