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    Ithaca community groups to welcome refugees in 2017

    The city of Ithaca will welcome 50 refugees in 2017. Photo from Ithaca Welcomes Refugees website.

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    While in Egypt this summer, Salma Shitia, a junior at Cornell University, who is a dual-Egyptian and U.S. citizen, heard talk of a thriving Syrian refugee population and wanted to check it out. When she got to Cairo’s “Little Syria,” she saw recently-created Syrian businesses and restaurants.

    “I saw all this pro-Syrian sentiment, and I wanted to see what was going on,” she said.

    Seeing these successful, thriving Syrian refugees confirmed to Shitia that she wanted to continue dedicating her time and effort to helping refugees back in Ithaca.  

    “I thought back to how there was so much anti-refugee, anti-immigrant sentiment here in the United States,” Shitia, who is involved with local nonprofit Ithaca Welcomes Refugees, said.  “And why a nation like Egypt would be so welcoming to refugees while a nation like the United States, which was founded on these principles of acceptance and the melting pot of the world is so scared.”


    Ithaca is preparing to welcome up to 50 refugees in 2017, Sue Chaffee, director of immigrant services at Catholic Charities of Tompkins and Tioga Counties, said. Chafee is leading the project, which is a sub-office of the Catholic Family Center in Rochester, and is waiting on upon final approval from the U.S. State Department.  

    “With the migrant crisis going on in the Middle East, they were looking for ways to expand refugee resettlement services in the United States,” Chaffee said. “When we were asked if we wanted to be a site, we decided we wanted to step up and do our part.”

    The 65 million displaced people worldwide without the protection of their governments and a “safe and durable” place to live is at its highest level, Westy Egmont, associate professor and director of the Immigrant Integration Lab at Boston College, said.

    “We’re at an all time high of the number of displaced people in the world, which includes both the refugees and internally displaced in the world,” he said.

    The Syrian Civil War has led to 4.5 million Syrians in need of resettlement, Egmont said, and the number of Syrians who need long-term resettlement is at a record number. The Syrian Civil War started in 2011, and has killed more than 220,000 as government forces fight a variety of rebel groups.

    Ithaca may resettle refugees from Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bhutan, Ukraine, Burma and Cuba, Chafee said, as well as translators who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. A majority of the refugees will likely be Syrian or Congolese, she said, and she expects the 50 refugees to come from 10 to 12 families.

    Ithaca has a history of welcoming refugees, Chafee said, with refugees from Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Vietnam and a number of post-Soviet countries re-settling in Ithaca during the 1980s and 90s. Twelve percent of Ithacans are foreign-born nationals, between professionals at the town’s higher education institutions and previous immigrants and refugees.

    “Ithaca’s been a welcoming host community for people coming here,” she said. “People feel like it’s safe here, it’s a nice rural atmosphere, and also there’s good educational opportunities for their children.”

    Accepting refugees had been a nonpartisan issue, but in the previous year it has become politicized, Egmont said. Anti-refugee sentiments are growing and becoming more popular on the right, and are seen as legitimate due to Donald Trump’s rhetoric on the topic. This has impacted refugees, as states that had previously accepted many refugees, such as Texas, are now refusing to partake in the federal government’s refugee resettlement program.

    Although refugees do face challenges in resettlement, such as bias in the workplace and children being treated as “others” in school, Chaffee said Ithaca and the surrounding area is impacted much less by anti-immigrant sentiment than other parts of the country.

    “For the most part, not having that anti-immigrant sentiment here is felt by those who make Ithaca there home,” she said.  

    When the refugees arrive, Catholic Charities will help them through many parts of the re-settlement process, including Airport reception, finding housing, signing up for social services, enrolling children and school and adults in English as a Second Language classes, arranging health assessments and identifying primary care physicians and mental health practitioners when necessary. The group is hiring staff and enlisting volunteers, and will also work with local nonprofits, most prominently Ithaca Welcomes Refugees.   

    Ithaca Welcomes Refugees was founded last year by a group of people in town who wanted to make a difference, Shitia, who has volunteered with the group, said. Chaffee said Ithaca Welcomes Refugees will help with transportation, collecting furnishings, providing translators, and participating in cultural orientation. This cultural orientation will consist of teaching the refugees basic American every-day life, such as how to take the bus, how to navigate a grocery store, how to set up an bank account, how to pay bills, and other similar tasks, Chafee said.

    Shitia was the co-president of Cornell’s Arab Student Association when that group decided last academic year that they wanted to contribute in helping Syrian refugees. The group led a clothing drive that resulted in 500 lbs of clothing, that went to refugees who have resettled in Michigan.

    “Cornell has a lot of resources here,” she said. “They have a lot of money that isn’t really tapped into, and you could tap into that money and hold events. We have a lot of students who are very interested from all different backgrounds.”

    Later during the spring semester, the Arab Student Association partnered with other groups, including the Interfraternity Council, Amnesty International and the South Asian Council to hold a fundraiser gala for Ithaca Welcomes Refugees, which raised $4,000. This semester, Shitia is working to bridge the gap between those passionate about the issue at Cornell and in the community.

    “Ithaca builds itself on these ideas of accepting new people, and trying to thrive with these new people,” she said. “And the gravity of the situation in Syria is another reason people are very passionate about helping. I think in my lifetime, and all these college students’ lifetimes, we’ve never seen anything like this.”

    To address this crisis, Egmont said a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis is necessary to stop the flow of refugees fleeing the country. After it is safe to return, Syrians can then re-patriate, and not need to be resettled elsewhere, which Egmont said is the best solution.

    Organizations resettling refugees in the United States can have an impact, he said. These organizations can help mobilize resources, provide a link in the supply chain, and allow refugees to discover their re-settlement options.

    “They are the voices of conscious in the United States,” he said. “They have a voice of public education that says, ‘we in the United Sates care, and we will respond positively with awareness of the human need.’”

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