Zoom Program: The Spirit of America

WTB hosted a virtual meeting on the theme: “The Spirit of America: Liberty, Diversity, Dignity” on April 18 to stimulate thinking and action about how we can be better neighbors to refugees who settle in Central New York.

What is it like to come to America as a refugee? InterFaith Works of CNY and Women Transcending Boundaries facilitated an opportunity learn more about a refugee’s experience resettling in our area. A new American shared the true story of her journey with us, followed by time for questions and answers.

Over 20 women from diverse backgrounds joined WTB on a Zoom call from 3:00-4:30 pm hosted by Daryl Files, Community Development Specialist for InterFaith Works of CNY and a member of WTB’s Advisory Board. We gathered as part of IFW’s “Spirit of America: Liberty, Diversity, Dignity” initiative to hear about a refugee’s experience relocating to our Syracuse area. (Smita Rane was able to join us from India, where the temperature that day hit 110 degrees F!)

President Barbara Bova welcomed everyone on behalf of WTB and introduced Daryl Files, who led the remainder of the meeting. Daryl offered background information on the range of programs InterFaith Works offers and detailed its Refugee Resettlement program. Over 10,000 refugees are our neighbors and friends, living mostly on the north and south sides of Syracuse. Refugees flee their own countries due to persecution, war, or religion. They have been approved by multiple organizations including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the U.S. Departments of State and Homeland Security; they have gone through many interviews, biometrics, and health screenings in a vetting process that can take up to two years.

InterFaith Works is an affiliate partner with Episcopal Migration Ministry. Refugees can apply for a green card after being in the United States for one year; after five years they can apply for citizenship. Under President Biden more refugees will be able to enter the USA. Refugee families from the Ukraine are expected in Syracuse next week.

When refugees arrive in Syracuse, they have 90 days of support through their resettlement agency: their apartment is set up with donations from the community, and paperwork for health and schools is in place. A caseworker is assigned to help them adjust to a new culture and learn/improve English skills. A job team helps them find work, including the newest initiative to help them become certified in this country to resume their careers and professions. If they accept the first job offered, a matching grant will pay all their expenses for six months. Grants are available to help them for up to five years. Refugees need to repay their travel loans; men must register for selective service.

A young woman who came to our area as a refugee in 2012 at the age of 13 then joined the call and generously shared her personal story. She and her two siblings were adopted from an orphanage in Ethiopia. She remembered her adjustment being hard; she didn’t know English and found it difficult to communicate and make friends. She took one year to learn English and then began middle school classes in the Liverpool School District. She appreciates that Syracuse is a diverse community. A high school graduate, she is attending community college classes in human services while holding a job in the restaurant industry and an internship at InterFaith Works. She graciously answered our questions about her experiences relocating here—including her family circumstances in Ethiopia and after arrive in Syracuse the school and faith-based activities that fostered belonging, adjustments to new foods and customs, and her future plans and goals. In response to a question about how schools can help refugee students “fit in” she suggested: implementing a “buddy” system, showing the new student around the school, and offering clubs for different languages. Teachers should approach students calmly and warmly, offering support and extra help and working together with other school professionals and advisors.

Daryl ended the meeting by inviting each of us to speak about our backgrounds and experiences we might have had relating to refugees. Some women on the call are New Americans who shared our speaker’s experience of coming here as a refugee or whose parents had done so. Many WTB had careers in primary or secondary education, higher education, mental health, childcare, nutrition and have supported refugees at various times through our professional work, family activities, and faith traditions. Among contacts mentioned were: an Afghan family though the Red Cross, Russian immigrants in Syracuse, Russian-Jewish immigrants in California, Syracuse Refugee Coalition, refugees in Paraguay after World War II, and a Liberian family.

WTB Council member Melek Yavuz shared that she came here from Turkey in 2006 as a refugee and is active in CNY RISE Ladies, as were several others on the call. Smita Rane talked about founding “A Ray of Hope” after returning to India—a social work group of like-minded friends that works with two schools (serving street children), an old-age home, an adult literacy program, a women’s shelter, a food bank, and Goonj (an organization which works in various social welfare fields; to cover their operational cost they sell old newspapers).

Hopefully, we can continue visiting this issue at a later meeting. The more we know about each other’s journeys, the more welcoming and supportive our community will become—for New Americans and all who call Syracuse “home.”

 In response to questions about the differences between asylum seekers, refugees, migrants, and immigrants, Daryl offered the following clarification:

Refugee: any person who has been forced to flee their country due to war, persecution, or because their home government cannot or will not protect them.

Asylum Seeker: not officially designated refugees, but they have appealed to achieve refugee status. They are leaving their country of origin in order to escape war or persecution due to their nationality, race, religion, or political affiliation.

Migrant: people who leave their home country and pursue residency in another place, generally to find work, seek education, or to be reunited with their families. Unlike refugees, migrants can return home to their country if they wish.

Immigrant: an individual who willingly leaves their country of origin and legally enters another country where they are granted permission to permanently resettle, thus qualifying them to work without restriction.