This month, Ithaca hopes to become home to roughly 50 Syrian refugees — the most immigrants the city has received since 2007 — according to Ashley Meeder, an Ithaca Welcomes Refugees spokesperson. Individuals are expected to hail from Syria, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
IWR consists of individuals who are passionate about creating the smoothest possible transition for the refugees, according to Meeder. She explained that Ithacans have been planning several events to welcome the newcomers.
There are already refugees in Ithaca who arrived via resettlement offices in other cities or via private sponsors. However the Catholic Charities’ — a local Ithaca group dedicated to assisting vulnerable members of the community — application to the federal government requesting to receive refugees is still pending, with authorization expected “any day now,” according to IWR.
“This summer, IWR hosted a community dinner as both a fundraiser and an opportunity to bring people together for the purpose of building a welcoming community,” she said. “[IWR has] also had a presence in classrooms and at community events, such as Ithaca Fest and a wide variety of panels and community speaking events.”
Coordinating with Catholic Charities, IWR has created a system to provide refugees with basic amenities, according to Salma Shitia ’18, president of the Arab Student Association.
“If someone needed hearing aids, they would be able to access it through the organization,” she said. “Basic needs, such as transportation to and from work or job interviews, is where the funding goes.”
Not only does IWR supply the necessary resources for refugees to build a life and career in Ithaca, but the nonprofit organization also works to offer internships and educational opportunities so that they can acquire a career relevant to their skillset.
“There is a refugee I [met] last year … an Iraqi farmer … [who] got an internship to learn American farming, so he can be a farmer here,” Shitia said.
Shitia also helped organize the “Cornell for Syrian Refugees” fundraiser after being contacted by IWR last year, which raised $4,000 for the cause. She said she was inspired to take on this project after visiting Egypt this past summer and witnessing the area’s communal embrace of Syrian refugees.
“[The Egyptians were] so happy Syrians were coming to Egypt, starting their own businesses and restaurants, contributing to the economy, exploring entrepreneurship and creating essentially another culture,” she said. “I was hoping I could try to bring that perception of refugees here to Ithaca, New York State and the United States by showing that these refugees aren’t just here to escape. They’re here to start a new life.”
The Ithaca Common Council voted unanimously in June to make the city a “welcoming community for all refugees,” regardless of their country of origin, according to The Ithaca Voice. Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 also voiced support for welcoming refugees.
“There are 10 million or more people in harm’s way, and they’re fleeing … and they’re looking for a place that will accept them,” Myrick told The Voice. “Ithaca should be that place.”
Ithaca has historically welcomed a large number of refugees, according to Meeder.
“In the last 10 years or so, many [Burmese] refugees came to Ithaca — the year 2007 alone saw about 50 Karen refugees,” she said. “Ithaca welcomed large groups of people from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1990s, Ithaca helped resettle people fleeing violence in Armenia, Bosnia and Russia.”
Ithaca is unique in its efforts to create opportunities for its newcomers. According to the White House website, the U.S. immigration system only allows “strong candidates for resettlement” to proceed in the immigration process, a group that makes up “less than one percent of the global refugee population.”
“My opinion is that Ithaca will never be their home because their true home is where their family, language, culture and memories were,” Shitia said. “It shouldn’t be forgotten that at one point Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan were not always a war zone … Ithaca could be their safe haven.”
A previous version of this article indicated that 50 refugees will arrive in Ithaca this month. In fact, the application to for Ithaca to become a resettlement site is still pending, although IWR is optimistic that authorization will be prompt.