ITHACA, NY – In November, Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick received both support and criticism after asserting that he would like to welcome Syrian refugees to Ithaca. Catholic Charities of Tompkins is now working to make that a reality.

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At Wednesday’s Common Council meeting, Deputy Director of Catholic Charities in Tompkins-Tioga, Laurie Konwinski introduced the idea by noting that the idea of aiding refugees comes “straight from the top,” as Pope Francis had called on Catholic organizations to help with the refugee crisis.

Ithaca and Catholic Charities both have a history of helping refugees. Several years ago, Ithaca resettled a number of refugees from Burma.

Konwinski said that currently about 200 immigrants are served by the program, many of whom are current or former refugees from around the world. They provide services such as legal aid as well as facilitating ESL classes and linking refugees with various social service providers. They’ve helped over 400 people achieve US citizenship, Konwinski said.

However, despite the fact that some of the people they’ve helped have been refugees, Konwinski noted that Catholic Charities is not actually a refugee resettlement agency. They are currently applying for this status.

“We feel that this community will be a wonderful place for this project to happen,” Konwinski said. “Obviously already a welcoming community, a community that’s welcomed many immigrants, including many refugees over the years. So we feel this is just a continuation of what is already happening, but obviously a stepping up to meet this current, really unprecedented situation.”

How the plan would work

Sue Chaffee, Director of the Immigrant Services Program at Catholic Charities, outlined how the plan would work.

Chaffee said that the goal would be to bring in 50 refugees during fiscal year 2017, which begins October 1 this year. Chaffee explained that she has a great deal of control over who will actually be resettled in Ithaca.

Once a person is vetted by the US government as an actual refugee, they are put into a “pipeline,” Chaffee explained, where they may have to wait for a couple years before they are placed. Chaffee says she intends to focus on bringing entire families to Ithaca, as opposed to individuals.

This is, at least in part, a matter of practicality, as Chaffee said it’s easier to pool up the resources dedicated to a family in order to pay for things like rent.

She added that the organization also gets a say in which countries refugees come from, and that the plan is to focus on Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Bhutan, as well as any people from Burma who have family in the area. Another group consists of translators from Iraq and Afghanistan who received Special Immigrant Visas in return for their aid. Chaffee noted that some SIV status refugees had already been resettled in Ithaca.

Chaffee explained the responsibilities of the resettlement program: “We would do everything from meet them at the airport, have housing secured, have their beds ready, the kitchen full — you have everything ready when that family hits the ground in Ithaca.”

From that point, they would also help the refugee family get social security numbers and connect them with the various social service and aid programs that they would need. The refugees are also entitled to some monetary aid from the federal government.

The current plan is to bring 50 refugees in the first year. Catholic Charities currently plans to make a 3-year commitment to the program.

Chafee also attempted to preemptively address concerns about incoming refugees displacing people from jobs, noting that many of the resettled Burmese have gone on to be entrepreneurs and effectively create jobs themselves.

Officials, public respond

Chaffee said that since the news was first announced earlier this week, she received at least 40 phone calls from interested citizens and groups who wanted to know what they could do to help the resettlement effort.

After the presentation, 2nd ward Alderperson Ducson Nguyen gave his thanks to the presenters, saying the issue was deeply personal to him.

“I am the child of refugees from a war-torn country, and agencies like Catholic Charities that helped to navigate life in the US — all the basics from how to buy food at the grocery, how to buy a car, how to buy a house — and without it, it would’ve been much harder to acclimate to life here,” said Nguyen.

Mayor Myrick also gave his thanks, saying, “This is a gut check moment for all of us, for our country. It’s the kind of moment where you prove who you are. And I think you’re going about the hard work of proving what Ithaca can be on our best day, so thank you for that.”

(Featured photo courtesy of IOM Iraq on Flickr)

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.