ITHACA, NY – On Friday, The Ithaca Voice hosted a panel capping off our “Road to Refuge” series, an in-depth look at refugees in Ithaca.
The series chronicled the experiences of an Iraqi refugee in Ithaca, looked at how several local farms are helping refugees, spoke with the heads of a new Ithaca organization devoted to aiding refugees and examined the process that a refugee might undergo before coming to Ithaca.
The panel included representatives from several local organizations working with refugees, as well as people as people who lived through the experience of coming to the United States under difficult circumstances and assimilating to life here. The panel consisted of the following individuals:
- Laurie Konwinski, of Catholic Charities of Tompkins/Tioga, who outlined a plan to bring 50 new refugees to Ithaca in the coming year
- Paw Ler, a Karen refugee from Burma (read the story of another Burmese refugee here)
- Jim Morris, of Catholic Family Center in Rochester, who has worked with refugees for 20 years
- Ducson Nguyen, Ithaca 2nd ward Alderperson, who is the son of Vietnamese refugees
- Julie Petrie, of Episcopal Migration Ministries and technical advisor to Ithaca Welcomes Refugees
- David Rhodes, a local teacher and another co-convenor of Ithaca Welcome Refugees
- Razi Rumi, Ithaca College Scholar in Residence, a foreign policy scholar and former journalist who left Pakistan after an assassination attempt on his life
(In the featured photo, from left: Julie Petrie, Paw Ler, Raza Rumi, David Rhodes, Ducson Nguyen, Jim Morris)
The panel was sponsored by The History Center in Tompkins County, Ithaca Coffee Company and Gnomon Coffee.
Below we recap a few of the key questions and issues touched on during the panel.
What is the current status of welcoming new refugees to Ithaca?
“We’ve gotten the first step, saying ‘You’re on your way,’ from our contact at the Conference of Catholic Bishops, but we are waiting still for that final paperwork,” said Konwinski. She said that the organization is planning and preparing with the expectation of approval, but aren’t yet able to “dot the last ‘i’ and cross the last ‘t’.”
Given Catholic Charities relationship with the Catholic Family Center and the presence of IWR, as well as support from City Hall, BOCES, health care providers and others, it is believed that the city has a very strong case for being a resettlement city, but the final word is still forthcoming.
How would the Ithaca or other US cities avoid the negative impacts of influxes of refugees seen in other countries?
Petrie noted, first of all, that the situation is simply vastly different between here and cities in Europe — one major part of that is that the US does not have open borders like much of the EU. She also explained that during the waiting period, which for Syrian refugees can be up to two years, refugees do not actually set foot on US soil until the end of the process.
“That long process means that people aren’t just getting on a plane and coming over, they’re not coming without everyone knowing exactly their background and where they’re coming and where’s a good fit for them to go to. It’s just a very different process and very different reality,” Petrie said.
That level of complexity also means that the US can’t scale up its resettlement efforts in the same way a country like Germany can. The US has been in the process of scaling up to taking in 100,000 refugees per year, but the process requires time and political will and may take years to reach that level.
(Editor’s Note: Petrie later clarified her statement in an email, writing: “For the coming fiscal year, which starts in October, the US is actually going to be receiving 110,000 refugees nationally. That is an incremental increase from 85,000 this year. But to go beyond that, to a major push bringing in much higher numbers would take many years.)
An Ithaca specific question: Ithaca is in a housing crisis, as we all well know. Where can these people live and how can refugees afford to live here?
“I’ve never been a fan of the idea that she would restrict or discourage people from living in the city… the demand is already there and the drop in the bucket of a few refugees doesn’t impact that very much,” said Nguyen. “On a personal level, I think that helping the most vulnerable people on earth takes priority in my mind… I’d prefer to focus on increasing the supply of housing in the city. We need housing of all kinds to address all segments of the market, which frees up housing for lower incomes and for everybody.”
Konwinski added to that point, saying that 50 refugees per year adds up to about 12 or 13 households –families are prioritized over single individuals. In Ithaca, two-to-three bedroom apartments that accept Section 8 tend to open up more readily than single-person housing units. Thus, she said, dealing with housing wouldn’t be easy, but easier than it might seem at a glance.
Why is local support is so important?
Support from organizations like IWR was highlighted as one of the reasons that Ithaca was ideal for refugee resettlement.
Paw Ler, who was originally resettled in New Jersey, became emotional when speaking about what the refugee experience was like for her when she first came to the United States and did not have that support, to the point where she couldn’t continue. Edith Johnson, a woman from the audience who knew and had helped Ler and her family took over to explain what happened to her and her family:
[su_note]”It was really hard in New Jersey. They had no sponsor… When her sister got pregnant — Paw Ler was 13, they’d been there for one year — she had the best English of anybody in the family. So when they called the ambulance to go deliver the baby, she looked at her mother and said, ‘I’ll go,’ because she knew mom couldn’t translate or help. They had no support, they still have no support.
Ten years later… I brought her nephew up, found out they had no health insurance, because the social worker just terminated down there because they didn’t send the right paperwork. It cost them $900 for her mother to get a green card down there, which is supposed to be free. So the kids don’t have a green card ten years later, so they can’t get a job, can’t get a driver’s license. It’s really hard when you don’t have the support.
So we brought Paw Ler and her mother here five years ago, because they needed help. We brought her brother here when he ended up in the ICU down there because of mold poisoning from the housing they were in. $300,000 later, of bills — no medicaid — he’s healthy, he’s working in Elmira now, living around here.
The nephew came up this summer because he was having a terrible time in school at 11 years old. One month up here with Primitive Pursuits, he’s doing way better, but we had to take him home because it would jeopardize her mother’s citizenship application if he stayed here.
It’s amazing what Ithaca provides that some of the other places don’t.”[/su_note]
Another reason why local support matters
Petrie added some context to Ler’s story, explaining that support is provided by the government for the first 90 days. While there are other programs that refugees can use beyond that, funding may become an increasingly difficult issue.
“The challenge that exists especially in a situation where we have 100,000 and now we’re expanding… doesn’t necessarily mean that the money has followed the expansion. The political will is there to make that decision so we’ll be able to bring in 100,000 refugees but we may not have the supportive services that go with that for the long term,” Petrie said.
Petrie added that with this year’s presidential election and the issues of immigration and refugees that have been brought to the forefront, it’s become more difficult to pursue support and funding for these programs.
Rumi spoke to why it’s important that communities like Ithaca to make a statement of support for welcoming refugees to the US.
“While Ithaca is a lovely place and I love it, it is a bubble… you go a few miles outside of Ithaca and reality dawns, because there is now an increased perception that refugees are somehow these aliens who come and do bad things, and are terrorists or want to be terrorists,” Rumi said. “The reality is that data shows that since 9/11 the US has resettled has resettled nearly 800,000 refugees of which only three were suspected to be involved in terrorist activities.”
“Communities like Ithaca have to make it clearer to other counterpart communities that there are people in the US who are more welcoming to refugees, who have this humanitarian vision of the world. I don’t know how much a local community can do to change the state department and CIA rules but certaintly you can make your voice heard,” Rumi continued.