Susan Campbell (opinion): He puts his trucks where his heart is for refugees

Jim Anctil is owner of Marie’s Movers, which has helped settle refugees in Connecticut in recent years.

Jim Anctil is owner of Marie’s Movers, which has helped settle refugees in Connecticut in recent years.

Contributed photo

At Marie’s Movers’ Oxford warehouse, the notion of starting over — sometimes with little more than a small bag of documentation — is never far from the conversation.

This is one of the company’s three warehouses, and while two men load a truck bound for Safe Haven, a Waterbury center that serves victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, Jim Anctil, company owner, gives a tour. In addition to being involved in multiple nonprofit efforts in the area, for the past few years Anctil and company have been angels behind the massive effort it takes to bring and settle refugees in Connecticut.

You can learn a lot about a culture from its castoffs. With boxes stacked almost to the ceiling, this warehouse is a library of the things we choose to no longer carry. Two violins in newish cases sit in a large box. A chair beyond repair rests on its back. There are stacks and stacks of clothes (not all of them suitably conservative enough for some refugees), but there are also tables and chairs around which families brought here by IRIS (Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services) will build a new life.

There are standards, of course. That broken chair will be trashed. On the truck outside is a brocade chair with inlaid mother of pearl that was somebody’s grandmother’s, but a leg is broken, so no. Stained mattresses don’t get passed along. Decorative occasional tables have little use for families arriving with next to nothing, but everything else finds a home.

Anctil became involved with IRIS in January 2017, when then-President Donald Trump signed an executive order that effectively banned entry to people from seven predominantly Muslim nations. Anctil was raised a liberal Democrat. He’s grown more conservative as he’s aged, but that order was a bridge too far. He called IRIS in New Haven and asked how he could help.

Here’s what gets lost so often in these debates: Both rock-ribbed Republicans and Democrats can agree that people who come to this country as refugees ought to be made welcome. We have a giant statue in New York Harbor that invites them, and who are we to argue with that?

As he worked with IRIS, Anctil became something of an expert about what should happen when a refugee takes seriously our “give us your tired, your poor” poem. He’s hired former refugees, helped them get drivers licenses (vital for achieving independence with Connecticut’s sometimes spotty public transportation system), shared meals in their homes and, while his employees study for the driving test, he has given rides to work.

With the recent wave of Afghan families coming to Connecticut, Anctil said he has put at least 10 percent of his company muscle behind retrieving and delivering furniture to them. He and his crew have driven up and down the East Coast and all over Connecticut. They’ve set up well-appointed apartments in West Hartford just steps from that town’s desirable Blue Back Square shopping area, and they’ve set up homes in some challenging neighborhoods in New Haven. He marvels at the luck of the draw for refugees — especially their children — where in segregated Connecticut, the quality of education can depend very much on a family’s ZIP code.

At some point, he will talk with his business partner, Karen Bresson, and bill IRIS for his services, though his services will come at a discount. Bresson shares his ideas, he says.

The company, which he started in 2008, is named for his mother, who had closed an area furniture store two years earlier. His crew numbers 30, but sometimes that swells to 50. When COVID hit, their work went on, though socially distancing when you’re lifting a heavy bookcase is difficult, and masks soon become drenched. Earlier this year, one of the toughest decisions Anctil has made as a business owner was to require that all employees get vaccinated. He lost two of his crew because they didn’t want to take the shot, but the shots work, and the virus has been kept at bay.

During a recent week, Marie’s workers set up seven apartments for refugee families, who will now go about the business of learning the culture. IRIS calls their work vital to their mission.

Anctil knows that for the refugees they serve, American life can seem overwhelming, so this is a story he sometimes shares: His grandfather was born in Quebec. When the family came to the United States, the 7-year-old spoke no English, yet here the little boy’s grandson stands in a warehouse he runs, helping people who are very much like his own family.

Most of our families came here with limited resources, and then we made our way. Most of us know what it means to get help to get settled. Middle class and beyond is possible, Anctil tells the people he’s settling. It’s entirely possible.

Susan Campbell is the author of “Frog Hollow: Stories from an American Neighborhood,” “Tempest-Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker” and “Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism and the American Girl.” She is Distinguished Lecturer at the University of New Haven, where she teaches journalism.