Refugee Resettlement in Syracuse

Three staff members from the Interreligious Council’s Refugee Resettlement Program spoke, bringing with them several women who came originally from Somalia.

Hope Wallis, Director

Hope said that the resettlement program has two important facets. They are responsible for welcoming refugees and helping them to settle into their new community, specifically with helping them with housing, employment, language and education. The program also has an advocacy role.

Hope said that the public tends to think of any immigrant as a refugee, but that a refugee is defined specifically as someone who has proved to the UN and the US that they have been, or face a credible fear or being, a victim of serious persecution because of their national origin, religion, ethnicity, political opinions or membership in a particular social group. There are over 13 million refugees worldwide with another 22 million displaced people still residing in their own countries.

The Interreligous Council of Central New York has field offices in Schenectady, Binghamton and Ithaca. It has a very diverse staff, many of whom are former refugees who have gone through the resettlement process and thus have the language and experiential background to help others. The IRC program has settled people from many countries, with the largest groups this year coming from the Sudan, Somalia, Bosnia, the Ukraine and Cuba. The most recent group has been Liberians, with expectations of a group of around 300 Somalia-Bantu people arriving, pending implementation of the October 2004 directive.

Hope said that people like us can help by sponsoring refugees through our faith communities or other groups. We can invite speakers from the IRC. We can donate goods and money and we can speak out against anti-refugee, anti-immigrant sentiment. 

Mariam Gedow, a native of Somalia

Mariam is currently on the staff of the Refugee Resettlement Program and spoke from the perspective of a person who had been resettled in the US. Mariam came to Syracuse in September 2000. A graduate of Somalia University in 1986, she received a Masters Degree in Economics in Italy. In 1989, she returned to Somalia and in 1990 when many people were forced to flee, she stayed in order to help others. She served as a translator with international agencies where her skill with Italian was especially useful. In 1995, the warlords would not allow women to work, so she went to a refugee camp in Kenya, where there was a great deal of violence. She then went to Pakistan where she worked helping women organize and advocate before the UN. She was in Pakistan for two years before coming to the US.

She spoke of the psychological stress that she and other refugee women face. Everything is different, including the climate, the food and the language. The women have lost their home, their country and their extended family and in some cases, their husbands. Unlike in Somalia, in the US the women are expected to start working outside the home very quickly and become heads of the household. Five months after moving to Syracuse, Mariam started working with the Refugee Program. She hopes eventually to continue her work in Economics.

Marty Nicholas, Senior Case Manager

Marty oversees the work of several other case managers. She said that Catholic Charities also settles refugees in our area and that Jewish Family Services was doing it until recently.

Like Hope, Marty stressed the important role of religious and other groups who contract with the IRC to act as sponsors. The sponsoring group welcomes the refugees into the community by setting up their home, meeting them at the airport, providing friendship and orienting them to the community, providing transportation to medical and dental appointments, etc. There is usually help also from a small group of the refugees’ countrymen who have already resettled, but these people are very busy adjusting and do not have the resources needed to sponsor someone else; Americans are very necessary to the process. Help is provided every step of the way by IRC’s case managers.

Refugees face many challenges. The biggest challenge is that they will be living in a poverty situation when they first come. Jobs are very scarce and wages are low; there is a lack of affordable housing; and refugees often do not have money management skills. Loneliness and depression often set in. Having received inadequate health and dental care, there are often medical concerns.

However, with the challenges come many joys. Refugee families have great strength and courage and a strong will to survive. It is an energy-producing experience for sponsoring groups. Marty characterizes it as “a faith experience lived out in a practical way.” Sponsors need to be open and flexible with the ability to “ride the waves.” They need a compassionate spirit, patience and the willingness to listen.

In response to questions that followed the presentations, the speakers mentioned the importance of the Federal program under the Syracuse City School District which provides job development skills and English as a Second Language classes. Refugees benefit greatly from 1:1 tutoring through Literacy Volunteers. Training in ESL tutoring is provided twice a year.