New Americans in Syracuse

Three women who play key roles in assisting refugees when they arrive in Syracuse described where the refugees come from and how our community assists them when they arrive: Helen Scott Malina, from InterFaith Works Center for New Americans, and Theresa Pagano, from the Westside Learning Center.

Speakers Helen Scott Malina and Theresa Pagano

Helen described the process by which one becomes a refugee, starting in the person’s home country. She noted that in the Syracuse area, we have different groups of immigrants from different nations, but not all of them are refugees. Many Cubans, for example, have come to the Syracuse area but not often through the United Nations refugee program; rather, they immigrate after being granted a Cuban/Haitian resettlement designation by the Department of Homeland Security.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has established several different classifications by which a person can earn a refugee designation: A person can be stateless, or a victim of war, or a victim of persecution because of his or her religion or ethnic group. For example, many of the Bhutanese people in Syracuse were victims of genocide and lived in refugee camps for up to 20 years.

Another type of designation is growing—and growing rapidly: ARW, or At Risk Women. In the Bosnian War, for example, military organizations use the rape of women as a tool of war to suppress another population. In the world in general, violence against women (not limited to domestic violence) has increased. As war has “matured,” it has become more juvenile, ugly, and cruel. One of the most-tortured groups is the Iraqis, which may be surprising in that these women are relatively more westernized and educated; yet many arrive here with symptoms of irritability, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Syracuse is ranked among the 10 cities in the US that have received the most ARWs; indeed, our rank may be as high as #3.

Some Africans leave their home country and are on the run for many years before they even get to a place where they can apply for and be granted a UNHCR refugee designation. Last year, Syracuse was supposed to get a lot of refugees from Darfur in the Sudan, but in actuality we received only a few. (Interesting note: Fur is the name of the place, and dar means “from,” so the word Darfur means “from Fur.”) The refugees were supposed to come through Chad, but Chad became so unsafe that before they could be given refugee designations, the refugee-processing operations had to be shut down and moved elsewhere.

Syria used to process refugees. But now, with the fighting going on there, many people from Syria are themselves becoming refugees and escaping to Turkey and Jordan.

There are many millions of refugees in the world, and only a very small portion of them—about 100,000—are resettled each year. The US receives about 70,000, making us the largest resettlement country by far. Ranked next after the US are Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and Germany, all of which are westernized countries that have a humanitarian commitment. The US has been committed to helping refugees since the Second World War—and this commitment has been a bipartisan one. Voluntary organizations, both faith based and others, also play a very big part.

When people receive a refugee designation, they are given a code that reflects the country they are in at the time, not the country from which they fled. So identifying the actual origin of refugees can be very confusing. Syracuse has gotten many refugees with the designation SY, which stands for Syria, but these people may have been originally from Iraq or Afghanistan and fled to Syria where they applied for refugee status. It may be 10 years or so before we see Syrian refugees coming to this country, if at all. They may eventually be able to return home, which is what most refugees would hope for. Some refugees who fled to Syria years ago from Iraq, and who now find themselves amidst the fighting in Syria, are crossing back into Iraq, a safer (though not safe) place by comparison.

This brings up yet another designation: SIV, or Special Immigrant Visa. This refers to Iraqis or Afghanis who worked very closely with the US government in their home countries and who now find that their lives are in danger. The US works to expedite their visas; there is very little delay because these people are so vulnerable—and have become vulnerable precisely because they helped our government in the course of the war. Sometimes people with SIVs buy their own tickets and travel here on their own; with their SIV classification, Helen is able to get them into her program.

The Middle East is a frightening place right now, with a great amount of upheaval going on. Iraqis in Damascus, Syria, for example, are being told to get to a safe place and are being assured that they will not lose their refugee status as long as they can get to an American embassy as soon as they arrive in the new country. If they go to Jordan, where there is no refugee camp, they face great expense just for day-to-day living.

About 90% of refugees coming into New York State are resettled along the east-west Thruway corridor, primarily in Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse. Relatively few are resettled in New York City because of the expense of living there.

A question was asked about ARWs and the extent of collaboration among local service groups so that service providers are aware of these women’s refugee designation and can provide appropriate help. Helen responded that although there is a way to find out a woman’s designation, doing so requires some research. She mentioned that women refugees who are deaf present a special dilemma: Depending on their culture, many were kept at home, hidden away and ignored; have no sign-language capabilities or other way of communicating; and are completely at the mercy of their husband or children.

Theresa Pagano explained that the Westside Learning Center serves 250 adults a day, teaching them English-language skills in small-group settings; day-to-day language skills; and vocational skills, such as office technology, day care, dietary services, housekeeping, and medical. Each adult is interviewed to assess his or her language skills and is then placed in an appropriate class ranging from pre-literacy to low-advanced literacy. Sharing goes on all the time: while the teachers teach, they also learn about the home cultures of the refugee adults. Teaching is as individualized as possible, despite the classes being large and a waiting list of people seeking placement. English-language learning is incorporated into everything, making it as meaningful as possible to the students. The center becomes a support network for the adults as well as their children. The learners themselves connect with and help each other.

The center has a dual-language, early childhood education program called Manos. Course content is in Spanish in the morning and English in the afternoon. The Manos staff is representative of the children in the class, which at the present time comprises children from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Cuba as well as two children from Somalia who are learning both Spanish and English. Parents are required to be at the school at least two hours a week

One Manos project that is going on right now is “Global Parent Stories – Creating a Story Book.” The parent tells a story, which is translated to English, and the children illustrate the story. This combines early-childhood learning and adult learning. The parents can express the strength of their culture, and they are share themselves with their children at the same time as they learn English. Thus, the Manos program is also a tool for adult education, with adults learning as they play and sing with the children.

A question was asked about what exactly a refugee family receives upon arrival here. Helen answered that Department of State refugees receive an apartment, with a bed, chair, set of sheets, and set of towels for each person, and a table, lamp, mop or broom, and waste basket. Also awaiting them are one hot (ethnic) meal, food in the refrigerator, and warm clothes if it is winter. During the first week, they receive food stamps, Medicaid, and public assistance. For the first 90 days, each person in the household receives a monetary grant, and the family is given orientation and is seen by case workers. The US government supports the refugees for the first 8 months, by providing basics but not trying to push American culture on them. After six months, the refugees are expected to begin paying back the cost of any airline tickets that were bought for them by the International Office of Migration; in this way, the office can continue buying airline tickets for future refugees.

During the discussion following the presentations, we learned:

Immigrants who come here on their own are not eligible for the grant program that provides cash assistance and support. However, people who arrive in the US and then apply for asylum are eligible to enter the grant program on the date asylum is granted. Examples of people who have been granted asylum are Cuban or Haitian immigrants.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) budget is currently in jeopardy of being put on the chopping block. 

Humanitarian partnership was the original American model.  Faith-based organizations would sponsor, and now these types of sponsorships are very low. In many instances, when a church does sponsor a refugee, it ends up being a sponsor for life, because the parishioners and the refugee develop a personal connection. Any nonprofit organization can be a sponsor. Sponsors need not be faith-based; for example, a class at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School sponsored a refugee. Individuals may not be sponsors but can serve as volunteers. Money is not necessary for sponsorship; the relationship is what is important. A wonderful example of individuals volunteering through a nonprofit organization is the women who teach in WTB’s Sew What program at the Center for New Americans.

Case managers are cultural navigators. They are representatives from the same culture as a refugee, and they have been through the same types of experiences.

Nancy Shepard explained about the Onondaga Citizens League, which, for its topic this year, is studying refugee issues in Syracuse. The OCL will create a report at the end of the year.

Seeds of Peace International Camp, in Maine, is attended by selected youngsters from areas of conflict. This past summer, two sessions were held. Young people from different cultures, and from different groups within a culture, are brought together to learn ways to interact, dialogue, problem solve, and work together toward common goals.

A documentary film is being made that highlights five of our local refugees telling their stories. Lisa Warnecke nominated WTB’s Dil Dahal to be one of them. Dil spoke about how glad she is to live in Syracuse; to be taking part in Sew What, first as a student in the class, and now as a teacher; and to be teaching yoga at the White Branch Library.

Jennifer also mentioned another member of the Sew What class, Goma, who now gives back by making curtains for incoming refugees’ apartments.

Jennifer introduced everyone who has been helping with Sew What (WTB’s ongoing series of sewing classes for new Americans) and the associated cottage-industry project helping them develop products they can sell. Helen also mentioned Eve Tamela, a WTB member who not only helps Thursdays with Sew What, but also coordinates (with two additional helpers, one of whom plays guitar and sings) a Monday Early Childhood Literacy program via Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library Grant at the Center for New Americans. This program helps parents read to young children using “Jump-up Story Circles.”

[At this meeting we unanimously approved a motion to add the word cultures to the description of WTB in our Constitution and Bylaws: “Women Transcending Boundaries, Inc. (WTB) is an egalitarian community of women coming together to respect and learn more about each others’ various beliefs, cultures, and common concerns. It is our intent to share our experiences with the wider community, to educate, and to serve.”]