What it Means to be a Refugee in Ithaca

Aye Twe

        Interviewing a former Burmese refugee

As an intern working at Catholic Charities of Tompkins and Tioga Immigrant Services Program during its attempt to gain recognition as an official Refugee Resettlement Program, I have been charged with interviewing the refugees of Ithaca. Through speaking with Burmese and Iraqi refugees in the city, a narrative around what it means to be a refugee in Ithaca can be shared with the community and those in Washington. Stories of war torn homes, language barriers, and the struggles and successes of acculturation that appear in the accounts of the refugees in Ithaca are hardly confined to upstate New York, as these themes are relevant to all newcomers moved by extreme circumstances to the US. Making a home in a new country is never an easy process, even when well organized agencies and dedicated sponsors like those in Ithaca lend a hand in the transition.

Commonly shared amongst the interviewees is the desire to live in a peaceful setting. Ithaca, a quiet and welcoming place, offers this for those seeking refuge here. Listed as ways to a post- conflict, prosperous lifestyle by the refugees were a free grade school education, English language classes, reliable sponsors and agencies, low rates of crimes, and economic opportunity. Presenting difficulties to taking full advantage of these services is the language barrier between many of Ithaca’s refugees and its services. But with the help of BOCES, an adult ESL program, many newcomers to the English language are getting an education that will galvanize their acculturation process and encourage economic growth.  This is not to say that the path to success is laid clear for all refugees in Ithaca, but it does show that there is an accommodating infrastructure in place for a dignified and complete resettlement process.

Described as home to a warm hearted community, committed networks of support, and educational and economic opportunities, Ithaca does well in welcoming the citizens of the world and assisting in their journey to make a life in a foreign land. By doing this the city and its residents have already gained an extremely brave, grateful, and diverse group of citizens, all of whom are proud to call Ithaca their new home.

What the refugees came to the US for is the opportunity to start over and in doing so, make for themselves and their families a dignified existence. Because of this, they represent what their naysayers refuse to believe: that the experiences of the refugees who come to the US are lived in accordance with the very principles that found our national ethos. They’ve immigrated to the US believing in the potential of a government made for the people and by the people, the liberties and responsibilities afforded by American citizenship, advancement through education, and the Constitutional promise of equality. In witnessing the courage and vision of the refugees who have already settled in Ithaca, I’m convinced that our community and country will continue to benefit from welcoming newcomers.

Matt Boyd


Posted on April 8, 2016, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Laurie Konwinski

    We are blessed to have Matt interning here at Catholic Charities, and we are blessed to be doing this work in solidarity with this amazing community that Matt has described. Thank you Tompkins County and Ithaca for being that peaceful welcoming place that refugees– and the rest of us– appreciate!

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