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‘Grandmother of the Bantus’ A Guardian of International Refugees

Putnam fills out paperwork to get refugees food stamps.

Story and Photos by Casey Casserino

Colorful crayon drawings were haphazardly plastered to the wall behind Hanson, a Hartford resident and African refugee who sat lifting his daughter above his head while the toddler giggled. Hanson’s partner Nancy smiled and looked away wearily, pointing to the card in her hand.

“I did this on the same day as me and my husband,” she said as she pointed to the date on the U.S. green card while fanning herself with an envelope. Nancy had applied for green cards for her entire family, but only received green cards for her five children.

Two years ago Nancy, Hanson and their five children came to the U.S. as refugees. They were placed in a small, dingy apartment near Hartford Center by immigration and refugee services. If the initial resettling process wasn’t stressful enough, Nancy and Hanson are still both without green cards.

“How can I get a job?” she asked wringing her hands as a bead of sweat dripped down the side of her face.

“I haven’t seen my brothers in now 20 years,” Hanson added, placing the toddler on the carpet. Without a green card, travel outside the U.S., and especially to Africa, is a complicated and expensive ordeal.

Fortunately for Nancy and Hanson, whose last names are withheld for privacy reasons, they aren’t without help. Armed with information release forms and the phone numbers of U.S. Rep. John Larson, Jody Putnam, director of the Jubilee House Refugee Assistance Center, is dedicated to solving similar problems involving refugees.

Her visit with Nancy and Hanson marked the beginning of a long day for Putnam. Her agenda included counseling a Liberian woman, bringing a Burmese refugee to the dentist, picking up a little boy’s first pair of eyeglasses and bringing several refugees to the Social Security office to find out why they had stopped receiving checks all before lunch.

“Usually what happens is I’ll go to an apartment complex just to check in and I’ll end up leaving with a stack of papers,” said Putnam.

Putnam has been tirelessly working with refugees for 20 years, and in 2005 the Jubilee House incorporated her volunteer work to establish the assistance center. Since then she has helped hundreds of refugees in Hartford. She has gained hundreds of friends in the process, earning her the nickname “Grandmother of the Bantus.”

“Everyday I get someone on Medicaid, bills reduced. I even fought to get this one child braces that took a year,” Putnam said.

Her work addresses the critical and emotional needs that refugees in Hartford often would otherwise suffer through alone. Though refugees are invited by the government to become permanent residents the day they set foot on U.S. soil, resettlement programs usually only provide assistance for the first four months. Putnam realized after meeting many refugees through teaching English that a lot of them were having issues applying for the necessary documents, finding doctors that take their insurance and enrolling in academic programs, among other problems.

Many of the processes refugees must go through, including filing for a green card, take months. Putnam’s mission isn’t to simply introduce refugees to American society, but to be a source of security while they begin the slow process of being integrated into society and learning for themselves how the system works. Her goal is to aid each refugee as best as she possibly can so that they can become financially stable.

“It’s a real challenge,” Putnam admitted, referring to the staggering obstacles refugees in Hartford face, “but it is incredibly rewarding,” she said, smiling at Hanson as she went to leave. Hanson hugged her and his daughter tugged at her pants, “If I get my citizenship, I will dance,” Hanson said with a smile. “He is an excellent dancer,” Putnam said nodding, with a smile.

Students in Professor Stephen Dunn’s photojournalism class were required to complete photo essays to tell the story of an individual on or around the Central Connecticut State University campus. This story is one of them.

Some of the refugees Putnam helps live in tight spaces. This family of four lives together in one room.