ITHACA, NY – Working with local non-profit Ithaca Welcomes Refugees, Ithaca’s Common Council voted unanimously to make an official declaration that the city will be a welcoming community for all refugees.

Speaking to the severity of the Syrian refugee crisis, Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick said: “There are 10 million or more people in harm’s way, and they’re fleeing and they’re looking — they’re fleeing from terrorism — and they’re looking for a place that will accept them. America should be that place, New York should be that place and Ithaca should be that place.”

Noting that sometimes these sorts of declarations are just statements with no actual impact, Alderperson Deb Mohlenhoff pointed out that this resolution was a meaningful one.

“We heard that you’re more likely to become a designated or preferred destination if your local municipality declares specifically that your doors are open to refugees,” said Mohlenhoff.

Mohlenhoff also clarified the distinction between Catholic Charities, who previously spoke to the Common Council about the refugee issue, and local non-profit organization Ithaca Welcomes Refugees, who brought this resolution to the council.

While Catholic Charities will work on the official government-level processing, paperwork and intake of refugees, IWR is focused on the on-the-ground assistance — helping the refugees acclimate by helping them find and furnish homes, secure jobs and the like.

Alderperson Ducson Nguyen explained that he was the product of refugees from a war-torn country. “I’m eternally grateful to everyone who helped my parents acclimate to life in the U.S.,” Nguyen said.

Ithaca Welcomes Refugees

Walaa Horan, one of the a co-conveners of IWR, said that a divisive statement Myrick made on his Facebook page in November helped set the wheels for the organization in motion.

Horan reached out to Kirianne Riehl, a pastor at the First Presbyterian Church, offering to volunteer. Riehl ended up collecting the names of all the people who expressed interest in helping and set up a meeting. That group eventually became Ithaca Welcomes Refugees.

“We didn’t know what to do, and nobody was doing anything,” said Horan, explaining that the laws for sponsoring refugees had changed and many of the local groups who had previously helped refugees no longer had that option. “So we wanted to see what we could do. We wanted to help people locally but also see what we could do to help people at the camps as well.”

Horan said that her inspiration to get involved first came from a place of anger over how little the United States was doing to help the Syrian refugee crisis.

In an article called, “Where the Children Sleep“, Horan saw the story of a five-year-old Syrian girl who shared her first name, something that affected her deeply.

“For me that resonated on a level that I never expected because I grew up in a safe home where my mom tucked me into bed every night and I didn’t have to worry about a bomb coming into my house or someone shooting while I was walking to school,” Horan said. “I grew up in the most boring way possible which is what I feel every child should have the right to.”

Horan said that the US has taken in just 1,700 refugees out of the 20 million displaced peoples throughout the world, this year. By comparison, Canada accepted 25,000 just last year. Even Egypt, she pointed out, has taken in over 100,000 refugees despite being in the midst of its own political crisis.

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The process

Horan explained the process for refugees, and the role that IWR plays in that process.

Refugees are vetted twice, once by the United Nations and then again by the country they will be moving to. In the US, each refugee family gets assigned a caseworker from a resettlement agency for three months, Horan said.

The caseworker essentially helps the family get their bearings, helping them to secure housing, enroll in English classes, register for health insurance and so on. According to Horan, however, the resettlement agencies are overwhelmed, and so IWR aims to provide additional support.

For example, IWR volunteers might drive a refugee to a doctor’s appointment or other important task, or they might help refugees find a job by not only finding willing employers but coaching the refugee through the interview process.

Since refugee families are provided with limited funding to help them get established in their new life, another function of IWR is to help them stretch that funding a little further. Between the 300 members on the IWR Facebook group, Horan says that most basic needs of refugees are fulfilled by donations within a few days.

“When we said, ‘We need a sowing machine for one of our refugee families,’ we got ten of them within five days. We have the support here and people that have a desire to help, people that have the inclination and desire to help,” says Horan.

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Response to the critics

The refugee crisis has been divisive throughout the United States. While the decision ultimately belongs to the federal governmnt, 27 state governors have officially declared their opposition to allowing refugees from Syria.

Even here in Ithaca, Mayor Myrick’s Facebook statement supporting the refugee cause was met with both adulation and harsh criticism. Some people questioned if it was safe to allow Syrian refugees, fearing they could be extermists. Others were concerned about the financial impacts.

“The fear’s gonna come from anything,” Horan says. “There’s been more deaths from toddlers accidentally shooting someone than by Muslim extremists. There’s more deaths from furniture than from Muslim extremists,” she says.

Horan points out that Ithaca’s been a refugee town for 70 years, with people from Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo and other nations now calling it home.  She feels that being a refugee community has benefitted Ithaca, both culturally and economically, noting that there are at least 30 refugee-owned businesses in the area.

“We’ve had refugees here forever,” Horan says. “This country was founded by refugees. You’re talking about a country that was founded by people fleeing religious persecution, and look how it’s thrived. This is a country that at its greatest was a melting pot of people just working together and being together.”

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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 msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.