Home Run

I t was January of 2017, and the organizers of the 10th annual Run for Refugees were about to get a jolt. 

A thousand runners were signed up for the 5K race, a fundraiser for New Haven’s Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), which has helped refugees from around the world resettle in Connecticut since 1982. Then, on January 27, nine days before the run, President Trump signed Executive Order 13769, better known as the “Muslim travel ban,” which, among other moves, suspended the entry of immigrants and refugees from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, the nations from which many IRIS refugees hail. IRIS supporters sprang into action, and within 48 hours, an additional 1,500 runners had signed up to run for and alongside New Haven’s refugees, maxing out registrations and leaving other would-be participants to cheer on the sidelines.

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That outpouring of support made an impression on Joseph Kazadi, who had arrived four months earlier with his family from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Kazadi, an attorney, and his wife, a reporter, were considered “enemies of the state” and had to flee with their three children. The fact that 2,500 people came out “because they just heard a political issue against the refugees and they came to stand with us—I have no words,” Kazadi says. Even though he’d had to leave his home, the experience made him feel he was safe here. “If something happens against [me], … the first people I will ask for help is those Americans who came to stand with us.”

This Sunday, they’ll come out again in the 12th annual IRIS Run for Refugees. A few improvements have been made since the big 2017 run, says Ann O’Brien, director of community engagement. The course was modified last year from an out-and-back up East Rock to a loop through the East Rock neighborhood, allowing up to 4,000 participants. As in the past, the run begins and ends at Wilbur Cross High School, where everyone with a race bib is treated to an international smorgasbord, this year cooked by a team of refugee chefs representing Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan and Iran, as well as food donated by local restaurants. “It’s really an international community food festival masquerading as a 5K,” O’Brien jokes.

Registration is open online for would-be runners and walkers through Saturday at noon ($32 to run or walk, or $22 for students under 18). Walk-up registration is available on race morning, but O’Brien says there’s no guarantee latecomers will get one of those popular Run for Refugees shirts. Non-runners who would prefer to donate to a race team or directly to IRIS can do so via the website.

Among this year’s runners will be about eight IRIS staffers, including Laurel McCormack, case management and acculturation coordinator, who walks or runs to work from her home off Whalley Avenue most mornings. She often sees IRIS clients and friends along the way, but the race is different because “we get to run together,” McCormack says. “I never run for speed, but whenever it starts to hurt, that thought that we’re doing this for the community… is motivating.”

Local businesses have also stepped up over the years to support IRIS and the Run for Refugees, including race sponsor Lesley Mills of Griswold Home Care, herself an immigrant who literally “grew up in the rubble” of Coventry, England, after World War II. Mills says her experience “can hardly compare… to what’s going on in the world now,” but it has given her a lifelong empathy for others arriving in America with so little.

The administrative team from Griswold Home Care trains for and runs the race together and are looking forward to what Mills calls a “group runner’s high.” But she worries that many people are feeling “deluged” by news reports. “There’s a very natural tendency to want to shut down from that for awhile,” Mills says, “and I understand that.” Nevertheless, even if fewer refugees arrive, IRIS’s assistance with housing, employment, education and adapting to a new culture continues, Mills points out. “They still have a lot of work to do, and that tends to get overlooked.”

On this two-year “banniversary,” as IRIS calls it, staffer O’Brien hopes others will remember greater New Haven’s refugees as Mills does. “Refugees still need to know that we’re out there for them and that we haven’t gotten distracted as a country,” she says, a sentiment echoed by Kazadi, who is looking forward to his third IRIS run. Now, as he studies to become an immigration attorney in the United States, he sees himself in the role of a supporter of other refugees, both here and around the world.

“We must show up and run,” Kazadi says. “It’s the way to have connection with all refugees around the world, who need [a] safe place to restart their life.”

2019 IRIS Run for Refugees
Wilbur Cross High School – 181 Mitchell Dr, New Haven (map)
February 3 at 10am

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image, depicting the start of the 2014 Run for Refugees, photographed by Uma Ramiah.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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