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Westport Sunrise Rotary Learns How Nonprofit Helps Refugees Start New Lives

Claudia Connor, president and CEO of International Institute of Connecticut in Bridgeport, speaks to the Westport Sunrise Rotary.
Claudia Connor, president and CEO of International Institute of Connecticut in Bridgeport, speaks to the Westport Sunrise Rotary. Photo Credit: Hal Levy

WESTPORT, Conn. — The Bridgeport-based International Institute of Connecticut has carved out a niche of helping new immigrants and refugees who flee for safety to the United States start new lives, its leader recently told the Westport Sunrise Rotary.

The organization is “providing new immigrants and refugees in Connecticut with services to help them become self-sufficient, integrated and contributing members of the community,” said Claudia Connor, president and CEO of IICONN.

The Institute, a nonprofit with offices in Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford, helps about 7,000 newly arrived people annually, offering a full array of legal immigration services, including court representation, victim assistance, and asylum application assistance.

Connor related stories about people her organization assists. One all too frequent concerns an Eritrean refugee.

Alexander, which may not be his real name, found his country had become a dangerous place for him. He had been conscripted to fight his country’s enemy, Ethiopia.

Taking his family’s advice, he fled to Sudan. But without proper identification papers, Alexander was arrested and robbed. He escaped and crossed the Sahara Desert to Libya, where he found work, but was again imprisoned because he didn’t have identification papers.

A friend bailed him out. For a third time, Alexander fled for his life, this time to Egypt, where he lived in a refugee camp for two years before he was allowed into the United States.

This camp was much like many others in the Middle East, “Very hot, very hot. My home was covered by plastic sheet. When I remember those days… it was very bad,” he said

He smiles when asked what his life is like now. “Wow!  A heavy peace. I am in a free country. I live with my family peacefully. My heart is not nervous when I see a police car.

“Now, with IICONN’s help, I live a good life in the United States. I have all my papers, we have good food, my family has medical services, my daughter has no more disease, and I have a good job.

“Today, I got a raise from $10 to $14!  Everything is good.”

Another client, a Guatemalan woman, made it across the Mexico border with two young children and is now reunited with her husband.

“I don’t know what I would have done if it weren’t for IICONN,” she said, saying she can’t afford lawyers and doesn’t understand all the paperwork. “My daughters and I are depending on the help IICONN provides.”

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