Yearly Archives: 2016

Ithacan Immigrant: Naw Poe


We interviewed Naw Poe, who came to the US as a refugee from Burma, for this week’s Ithacan Immigrant.  The picture below was taken when she accompanied her father to USCIS in Syracuse for his citizenship interview.  After he naturalized, she also went through the interview process, had her N-400 application approved, and is waiting on her swearing-in ceremony.  Congratulations to both Naw Poe and her father with their achievements toward  US citizenship.


ISP: Why did you come to US?

I came to the US as a refugee; I came here for better education and a better life.

ISP: Why did you decide to live in Ithaca?

My family first lived in Buffalo and then we decided to move to Ithaca because my sister was living here.

ISP: What was your first impression of Ithaca?

I thought it was beautiful.  But the weather is different than my country; it’s colder.

ISP: What is your favorite American food?

That’s a hard question – probably hamburger and French fries.

ISP: Where is your favorite place to shop in Ithaca?

I like Kohl’s – they have beautiful dresses there.

ISP: What is the biggest difference between Ithaca and your home town?

In Burma there is better food. Here it is hard to find the food that I want.


Ithaca Ready

kathleen-berginThe following post was written by Kathy Bergin (pictured left), who has been volunteering with ISP as the community liaison for our refugee resettlement program.

The number of people displaced from their home on account of war or persecution has topped 63 million, according to the latest statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees.  That number, already the highest on record, will continue to grow so long as poverty, armed conflict, and the depletion of earth’s resources makes life in some parts of the world unbearable.

Faced with a deepening humanitarian crisis, Ithaca has stepped up to meet what UN experts call “a global responsibility.”  Earlier this month, Catholic Charities of Tompkins/Tioga received a federal grant to help resettle 52 people who have fled violence or persecution in their home country – places like Syria, Iraq, Burma and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Families will start arriving in early 2017, and will continue to arrive throughout the year.

The decision to locate a Reception and Placement Program for refugees in Tompkins County involved a comprehensive review by federal officials of several factors, including our record of successfully integrating newcomers into the community.  Indeed, nearly one in 12 people who live in Tompkins County were born in another country.  They come as students and teachers drawn to regional colleges and universities.  They come because their families are already here.  Some were exiled from their home country as adults on account of their religious beliefs or ethnic background, or came here as children to escape war in Southeast Asia or the collapse of the Soviet Union.  These are not strangers.  These are our friends, and our neighbors, and the families our children grow up with.

Second, elected officials are on board.  While in Buffalo last week to meet with refugees and representatives from resettlement agencies in Western New York, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand praised “extraordinarily brave refugee families and the selfless community leaders who are helping them adjust to their new lives.”  Locally, the Common Council voted unanimously in June to make Ithaca a “welcoming community for all refugees,” echoing Mayor Svante Myrick’s promise to do “everything in my power” to support refugees.  When it comes to “people in harm’s way … looking for a place that will accept them,” Myrick said, “Ithaca should be that place.”

Third, we are ahead of the game.  As the volunteer Community Liaison for Catholic Charities, one of my responsibilities is making sure we meet our federal obligation to provide newly arriving refugees with a core set of basic services.  To that end, we are working with landlords to secure safe and affordable housing for refugee families.  Faith groups and volunteer organizations have donated furniture and other household goods, and collected car seats, winter clothes, and personal items to help refugee families transition to their new home.  Medical providers, government agencies, and private organizations provide additional services.  This growing network of support is critical to our mission, and also stands as proof of what caring people can accomplish by working together.

Even the most well prepared cities will face challenges, however.  Those who cite national security concerns as a reason for limiting resettlement deserve to be heard.  As do those who fear that refugees will overburden service agencies, or cause us to overlook existing community needs.  Catholic Charities considered these factors when it submitted its application, as did federal officials conducting the final review.

The process for vetting refugees involves multiple layers of clearance, and takes place entirely overseas before anyone qualifies for entry into the U.S.

The UNHCR interviews every applicant, investigates background connections in the home country, and verifies the authenticity of supporting documents.  A second layer of screening involves nine different US agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Biographical data such as fingerprints and iris scans are checked against criminal and terrorism databases.  Data on Syrian applicants is even cross-referenced against classified information.  Applicants are also screened for medical issues, enrolled in English courses, and participate in “cultural orientation.”  According to the State Department, the entire process takes an average of 18-24 months.  About 50% of applicants are rejected.

Moreover, Catholic Charities capped the number of refugees it offered to resettle, stating a preference for larger families who would not compete with smaller families or students for a safe and affordable place to live.  Similarly, in partnership with other service providers, Catholic Charities helps prepare newcomers for jobs that local employers find hard to fill.  In the past, we have even provided refugees and other immigrants with entrepreneurial support, including workshops geared to the success of small-business owners.

Finally, although refugees are eligible for up to 6 months of services under the resettlement program, Catholic Charities will continue to provide ongoing support – as it does for anyone in need – through existing programs.  The agency’s Immigrant Services Program is locally funded, and over the past 10 years has helped hundreds of newcomers achieve self-sufficiency, integrate into the community, and obtain U.S. citizenship.

Catholic Charities is here for the long-run, and is proud to be part of a community that looks beyond borders to see the common humanity in all of us.

Ithacan Immigrant: Walheed


This week’s Ithacan Immigrant features Walheed, a former Egyptian national who was also the owner of one of Ithaca’s favorite pizzerias, Sindbad’s, before it closed. Walheed has been accessing our legal immigration services in order to bring his wife and children to the US. He has hopes of opening another business sometime in the near future that will feature seafood and be a place to get “really good fish.”


ISP: Why did you come to US?

I came to see what the US looks like.  I was a student in Egypt at the time, wanted to work a bit for the summer time, buy a car and go back. I ended up staying, got married and became a US citizen 7 years later. 

ISP: Why did you decide to live in Ithaca?

My brother-in-law was living here, working in a restaurant and he said the business was good here.  I moved from Staten Island, came to Ithaca and opened up a restaurant in Collegetown.  We were in business from 2004-2009.

ISP: What was your first impression of Ithaca?

I loved it when I came here.  I grew up in the country; I’m so used to seeing green everyday and love it.  It’s a nice place to raise children – there’s parks, swimming pools, and I get to take my kids ice skating.

ISP: What is your favorite American food?

When I first came to the U.S. I ate White Castle for the first three months.  Then I got to know other things – I love spaghetti and meatballs and Philly cheesesteaks.

ISP: Where is your favorite place to shop in Ithaca?

Kohl’s – they have good products, good materials and always have sales there.

ISP: What is the biggest difference between Ithaca and your home town?

Everything here is nice and organized.  Everyone is pleasant and smile at you all the time.  In Egypt it was chaotic,  we don’t have these kind of parks here, the air is very polluted.

Refugee Health Part I: Significance and Challenges


The seemingly endless presidential campaign has finally reached its end. As one of the most contested election in U.S. history, this election gave rise to numerous issues that have emerged as national priorities. One of them is the refugee crisis, exacerbated by the turmoil in the Middle East and fueled by the recent terrorist attacks both domestic and abroad and the country’s long held fear of outsiders. Unfortunately, the one issue that has not been gained enough attention is refugee health. While many Americans have spent many hours arguing who and how to let people in or not in to this country, the health and well-being of those who finally made their ways here is a topic yet to be discussed. In moral sense, the health of those escaping humanitarian crisis in their home countries and who we deemed safe enough to let in is the moral obligation of ours as the health of any other fellow Americans. Refugee health is also an economic and public health issue as many tend to have preexisting health conditions and poorly managed health records that can jeopardize American public health and burden the government medical programs. According to the U.S. Department of State, New York State has taken in more than 1,200 refugees since last year, the third most in the nation. They are from countries like Iraq, Somalia, Ukraine, Burma, and Syria. They are the at-risk population in our backyards in our community whom we need to readily embrace and protect from falling into poverty and serious health conditions, both physical and mental.

The challenges frequently experienced by refugees can be illustrated by the “triple trauma paradigm,” according to Harvard Public Health Review. In this model, the primary trauma leads to the initial flight from the home country, the second trauma occurs during the flight or time in refugee camp, and then the third trauma occurs during resettlement. The primary and secondary traumas stem from the physical conditions of their home countries and refugee camps which often include poverty, war, torture, loss of loved ones, and starvation. In fact, according to Center for Victims of Torture, the prevalence of torture in the refugee population in the U.S. is estimated to be 44%. The abject physical conditions and the instability of life at home bring both physical and mental distress to refugees that often manifest itself later as depression, PTSD, and unmanaged chronic diseases. Yet, when refugees finally make their ways to their new country, they often do not get a chance to address their previous sufferings. Rather, resettlement brings its own stressors. Refugee families must find housing, navigate new social institutions, start a new job, locate new schools, all simultaneously while learning a new language and culture. Their physicians may want them to take medications on time, see a surgeon, get an MRI, and be evaluated by a therapist, but their priorities fall into ensuring first that basic needs are met for their families. These different priorities between medical professionals and refugees delay their chance of recovery from previous traumas and often worsen their preexisting conditions. These competing demands of different social institutions easily overwhelm refugees and result in lack of adherence and waste of valuable resources in the health care system.

There is a cycle of lack of access and poor health outcomes among refugee population. Recent studies have shown that low health literacy among refugees reduces utilization of necessary medical care, and the resulting, untreated health problems create more barriers to learning English. In fact, to many refugees, the concept of preventive medicine and primary health care are entirely foreign and may appear as an unaffordable luxury given the anxiety about their current lives. This limited patient understanding of the medical system and inadequate provider knowledge about refugee life further isolate them and prevent them from accessing adequate medical care. The anti-immigrant sentiments in the U.S. further burdens refugee life with discrimination as well. As a consequence, many refugees are at great risk of developing depression and anxiety and exacerbating any preexisting chronic illnesses and further isolation from the society. The medical system can do its part to stop this continuous cycle of isolation and poor health. By taking an integrative, preventive approach to the health of refugee population, their resettlement process can become truly settling with the moral and economic standards of our country.

Sean Kim

ISP Intern, ’17 Cornell

Thanks, Mayor


    CCTT staff garnering support from Ithaca’s Mayor

Earlier this week, CCTT received final approval for an application we submitted to the Department of State last May to become a site that offers refugee resettlement services.  In order to begin the application process we were tasked with identifying and engaging community members, such as Mayor Svante Myrick, to gauge and garner support for refugee resettlement.  Since there was a lot of backlash about increasing numbers of refugees being resettled in the U.S., the Department of State wanted to ensure there was community buy-in from for any proposals being submitted and it was clear this would be a crucial part of the approval process.

Thankfully, we met this threshold.  As CCTT staff set about meeting with several stakeholders in the community in order to bolster our application, we were pleased how receptive government officials, local leaders, the faith community, department heads, our local funders, and community members were about our plans to bring refugee resettlement services to Ithaca.  The Mayor had already set the tone that Ithaca would provide a safe environment for refugees to relocate to and he echoed this when we personally met with him.   Not only did we get his full support back then but see from this Facebook post we still have it.  We want to acknowledge the Mayor and thank him for his willingness to back Catholic Charities’ efforts in supporting refugee who are fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries and welcome them into our community. Thanks, Mayor!

Catholic Charities’ Refugee Resettlement Program

While Catholic Charities awaits final confirmation from the State Department on our status to be a site that offers refugee resettlement services, we were pleased to participate in an interview with the Ithaca Week to discuss the steps we are taking to implement services in order to launch this program.  We’d like to acknowledge IC students Aiden Quigley (’18) and Kyle Stewart (’18) for their part in helping us get the word out to the community about the refugees we will be serving and the services they will receive as we help them start new lives in Ithaca.   We are also pleased to see the passion that is portrayed by Salma Shitia (’18 Cornell) in the video and appreciate that that she and other volunteers from Ithaca Welcomes Refugees are truly committed to ensure Ithaca is indeed a welcoming place.


The above video was originally published in conjunction with this article.

Meet Soren, ISP Volunteer

Soren and Mody

Soren (left) and his friend Mody (right) in Cairo near Talat Harb.

Hello, my name is Soren Klaverkamp and I am excited to begin volunteering with the Immigrant Services Program at  Catholic Charities. Shortly over a year ago I spent a few months in Fes, Morocco studying Arabic. At most of the major intersections near downtown Fes, I would often see men standing on the corners and asking passers by for money. On a few occasions I stopped and chatted with them to find out a little more about their background. Most of them spoke some degree of English and said they were from countries further south; they were all using the money to journey further north (via Tangier with sights on Europe). One particular individual told me that he hoped to one day make his way to the United States. I asked where they lived and they responded saying that it was often hard for them to find housing because locals were unwilling to rent to them. As a result, they had created an informal camp near the train station that was periodically cleared out by police. The struggle to improve one’s life can be a long, dirty, and slow; resistance from those around you can make it unnecessarily difficult.

After my time in Fes, I moved to Cairo where I had the pleasure of meeting some folks from South Sudan and Syria. Many of the South Sudanese I spoke with identified as refugees and were adamant about informing me of the crisis their county was facing, the violence they had witnessed, and their desire for better education. They talked a lot about their difficulties as refugees in Egypt. There were many barriers to acquiring good jobs and housing in Cairo and they faced racial discrimination from Egyptians. Many of the Syrians I spoke with did not identify as refugees and were having the opposite experience of my Sudanese friends. It was easy for them to find jobs and they faced few difficulties when trying to rent apartments. I often heard it jokingly said that the influx of Syrians in to Cairo was one of the best things to have happened recently to the city.

Throughout all of these experiences, I was struck by their parallels in the United States. Some groups that arrive in the United States are welcomed with open arms and given a firm base from which to start; others are met with hesitance or outright hostility. As a citizen of the United States and a descendant of someone who once overcame the immense challenge of uprooting themselves from one country in the hopes of resettling in another, I believe it is my responsibility help ease the transition of those with the same pursuit as my ancestors. I look forward to doing this at Catholic Charities and meeting the people who are doing what the members of my family did so many years ago.

Ithacan Immigrant: Bailtal

~8958845This week’s Ithacan Immigrant features Bailtal, who recently naturalized as a US citizen.  Bailtal, a former refugee from Burma, came to ISP for citizenship services along with five other family members.  All of them were successful in having their citizenship applications approved.  We also featured Bailtal and his mother in this post.  Congratulations to all of them!


ISP: Why did you come to US?

Because I wanted to get my own freedom. When I was little I moved to the refugee camp in Thailand and I didn’t have any outside knowledge and all I did was go to school in the camp, studied basic English, come home, eat & play. We couldn’t go outside; here you can go almost everywhere in the US.

ISP: Why did you decide to live in Ithaca?

I had a friend and she told us this would be a good place for you.

ISP: What was your first impression of Ithaca?

I was surprised of the people who worked for the refugees.  They showed their love and worked very close with us.  

ISP: What is your favorite American food?

Hamburgers, fast food.

ISP: Where is your favorite place to shop in Ithaca?

Wegmans – they have a lot of food that we eat.  My favorite would also be Asian Chinese store.

ISP: What is the biggest difference between Ithaca and your home town?

The biggest difference is the weather – here it’s crazy.  I love the summer.  Wow, in the winter it was really crazy.  And the culture – the way people communicate, the way they socialize is all different.  Back there when you go to school you talk to your friend, you can touch each other – here it’s completely different. 

Meet Sean, ISP Intern


First day as a naturalized US citizen

Hi, my name is Sean Kim. I am a student at Cornell University, studying human biology with a minor in health policy. I am very excited to spend my senior year interning at Catholic Charities, especially for its Immigrant Services Program (ISP). My interest in working for ISP stems from my personal background and my previous experiences in community service and healthcare field. An immigrant myself, my family and I moved to America from Korea about ten years ago. My naturalization ceremony just this past summer marked a formal ending to my long and complicated journey of immigration to this new country. It also marked a new beginning in my life as a new American, with a new purpose to advocate for and facilitate assimilation of other immigrants, many of whom come from much less fortunate circumstances than I was in ten years ago. I believe, like many economists would agree, that immigration is a net additive value to the country’s economy and welfare. Having experienced the arduous yet rewarding process of immigration, I want to be a help for other immigrants who are here to build a better future for themselves and their children and live an American dream.

Two years ago, I started volunteering for the Big Brothers Big Sisters program of the Ithaca Youth Bureau with a 9-year-old boy from a Burmese refugee family living in downtown Ithaca. As I got to know better about him and his family, I was surprised to learn that Ithaca is home to sizable refugee and immigrant communities. Spending time with him and learning about his family’s circumstances – fleeing religious persecution from their home country – reaffirmed my passion. As an integral part of the American social fabric, immigrants possess a large amount of potential to enrich the society. I believe America thrives when people like the Burmese refugee families have opportunities to better their futures, just like the millions of immigrants who came before them.

As an aspiring physician, I am also deeply interested in healthcare. As much as America is full of opportunities for better life, American healthcare is riddled with complexities and inadequacies that are very unique compared to many other developed nations in the world. Due to social stratification and geographic maldistribution of physicians, many immigrants, who tend to be poorer and live in isolated communities than the rest of the population, fare worse in terms of access to healthcare resources and health outcomes. In fact, many preventable deaths, chronic conditions, and ER visits can be traced back to the patients’ social circumstances such as education, living arrangement, income and nutrition, beyond the traditional, biological pathophysiology of diseases. From my experience as a volunteer in the emergency department at Cayuga Medical Center, I have witnessed the consequences of these social determinants of health.  Poverty and marginalization from the rest of the society leave the poor and immigrants to be the most vulnerable among us.

At Catholic Charities, I hope to serve the community I call my second home. I hope to help those in need, just like my family ten years ago or my “little brother” and his Burmese refugee families. From helping navigate through employment and naturalization processes to accessing American healthcare and breaking down language barriers, I look forward to work for and provide resources to those building a better life for themselves and their families, just like you and me.

Ithacan Immigrant: William


We interviewed William, a former Burmese refugee, for this week’s Ithacan Immigrant.  William was originally resettled in Texas but eventually made his way to Kansas City and decided to live in Ithaca several years ago so he could live near his cousin.  Over the years he accessed our services to find employment and to become naturalized as a US citizen.  William’s youngest daughter just turned 1.


ISP: Why did you come to US?

There was a civil war in my country so I came as a refugee.

ISP: Why did you decide to live in Ithaca?

I first lived in Texas but had family in Ithaca – my cousin lives here.

ISP: What was your first impression of Ithaca?

I thought the city was cool.

ISP: What is your favorite American food?

Mushroom burgers.

ISP: Where is your favorite place to shop in Ithaca?

The Ithaca Mall.  They have a lot of stores so it’s fun for me to go there.

ISP: What is the biggest difference between Ithaca and your home town?

The weather – there’s no snow in Burma!