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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.


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.

Guest Post: My Journey to Becoming a Refugee


May, (4th from left) with her mother, 2 younger brothers and family friend

May, (2nd from right) with her mother, 2 younger brothers and family friend in Thailand

The following post was written by May, a former Burmese refugee, who has helped ISP out over the years in many ways.  She is someone we have turned to when we have questions about Burmese culture or need help with interpreting.  May spent a good part of her childhood on the run as she and her family made their way to the Thai/Burmese border to escape Burma’s brutal military regime and register to become refugees.  We asked May to write about some of those childhood memories, starting out with the night she left her home.  Here’s what she wrote:

Being a refugee is something I will remember for the rest of my life. When I was 7 years old, my family had to flee Burma in order to be safe.  On August 8, 1988, thousands of people were killed in Burma and many were put under house arrest, including Aung San Suu Kyi.  My father and other students were being targeted by the military and fled to the Thai/Burma borders.  At first, my mother, 4 brothers and I stayed behind in our village and were constantly forced by the military government officials to keep them informed about our whereabouts and what we knew about my father.   Eventually, we left our village in order to be with him.

Most of my childhood memories are associated with being a refugee.  In 1989, during the full moon festival, my mother took us to visit our grandfather. That night, she left with my youngest brother, leaving my other brother and me behind. My grandfather spent the evening telling us fable stories about Buddha. After sleeping a bit, he woke us up and said, “Go with this person and your mom will be waiting for you.” We had never met the man he was sending us with before.  This stranger then took us on a bicycle until we arrived at a hut. We rested a bit and then continued on foot. He carried my brother while holding my hand as we followed yet another route. I remember having to walk a very long time; I was very sleepy but had to keep walking.  It was dark and I remember we didn’t have a flashlight; instead the moon’s light guided us. We were eventually reunited with our mom at another stranger’s house. At that point, I had no idea why we were traveling at night. I also had no idea that that would be the last time I would see my grandfather.

After sleeping a short time, we were once again woken up during the night and this time we were taken to a fisherman’s motor boat.  I still remember that boat and how its engine stopped running in the middle of the sea.  There were other fishermen around us trying to catch hundreds of white jelly fish floating on the surface of the sea while our motor boat just floated around. The stranger tried to wave down help and finally we were moved to a new motor boat. We headed to a different village and reached there at night time and that’s when I finally heard my father’s voice as he talked to my mom in a separate hut from us as I woke up. I remember how relieved I felt to hear my father’s voice and how my younger brothers and I all giggled because this made us so happy.

May, (front row, 2nd from left) and her family after they fled Burma.

May, (front row, 2nd from left), after she, her mother and brothers are reunited with her father.

As a child, I didn’t think of leaving our home as hardship; I thought of it as an adventure for my family. As an adult, I now realize how terrifying and frightening it actually was.  But to a small girl, it was an adventure.  I attribute this to our family staying intact through this whole ordeal and the ability of my parents to shield us from the danger we were in.  As our journey continued, we spent time in the jungle as we moved from village to village.  I have memories of riding elephants through the jungle near the Thai/Burma border. I also have memories of spending two nights in the deep jungle near the river bank and hearing tigers and other wild animals nearby.  During that time we had to catch fish for food and try to catch rides from jeeps or trucks that were passing by.   Finally, we arrived at one of the student camps – a camp filled with pro-democracy freedom fighters, like my father.

At the camp, many people were getting sick with malaria and other viral infections. There was not much food; we had to live on rice soup with a little salt and sometimes fish, or wild animals we managed to catch. We also planted a lot of vegetables by a river bank. We got help from an NGO and they provided us with basic medicine and clothes. We would eventually leave this camp and spend 3 years moving from village to village and during that time I remember families losing their loved ones through malaria. Also, since the villages were under attack, many people suffered from gun shots or accidents.  My mother gave birth to my youngest brother during one of these attacks – I can still remember hearing bombing nearby. I also remember there was a full moon again.

By the time I was 10 years old we had made our way to Thailand.  We tried to register with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) to be recognized as refugees which was located in its capital.  At that time, we lived in a Thai village and this is where I began to learn about Thai culture and how to speak its language. My family then moved so we could live in a missionary house – it was there I began to learn English and the practice of yoga.

Many years went by between the time I left my grandfather’s house until my family and I would be officially recognized as refugees.  But in 1996, we were successful in having the UNHCR register us to live in Maneloi Refugee Camp which began the process of us resettling to the United States.  Prior to moving there though, were still weren’t completely safe; our house in Thailand was raided by the police while my mother was out shopping for vegetables. There were a few other refugees at our house and I remember we were questioned for many hours. We even had to show the police a library card given to us by the refugee camp as identification. We finally moved to the Maneloi Camp though signifying the end of the journey I had to take between my home in Burma and ending in Thailand where I would become a refugee from Burma.  This is also where my next journey would begin as I would be headed to the US a year later.

Please note that this is Part 1 of May’s story; Part 2 will be posted later this summer.

A Taste of Ithaca: Let’s Talk Momos!

yeshiAt the Immigrant Services Program we have the privilege to interact with a lot the people in Ithaca that bring new flavors and experiences to this beautiful city. One of our favorite things is The Food! Many of our clients work in the Food Service Industry. Some own their own businesses, others work as cooks or servers. Many of the “ethnic” food choices in Ithaca are run and/or operated by immigrants. There are so many delicious foods here from all over the world. This summer while we were thinking of what kinds of stories to do for our blog we decided to do a series of posts featuring food options for Ithacans that will help them experience a bit more of the diverse place we live  in.

For our first post on we will go to Tibet! Our client Yeshi is the owner of the Tibetan MoMo Bar in Downtown Ithaca‘s Center Ithaca. Yeshi offers both Tibetan and Japanese food at his restaurant, but my favorites are the Momos!

The Momo is a type of dumpling native to Nepal, and in some communities in Tibet, Bhutan, and Northeast India. It is similar to Chinese baize and jiaozi, Mongolian buuz, Japanese gyoza, Afghan mantu, and Korean mandu. Momos can have meat  or vegetable filling and they are usually served steamed. Momo is usually served with a dipping sauce (locally called chutney/achhar), normally made with tomato as the base ingredient. In Nepal, soup momo is a dish with steamed momo immersed in a meat broth. Pan-fried momo is also known as kothey momo. Steamed momo served in hot sauce is called C-momo. There are also a variety of Tibetan momos, including tingmo and thaipo.

momo pic 1

I am a frequent client at the Tibetan Momo bar, so last week when I stopped for some lunch I asked Yeshi a few questions about the delicious and unique foods he offers at his Momo bar.

Here is what he had to say:

ISP: So how did you learn to make Momos?

Yeshi: My mother taught me how to make them, back home in Tibet. My family has a recipe for momos that has been passed on from generation to generation for many years and I asked her to teach me how to make them. They are made with simple ingredients, just water, flour and yeast, but you need a good recipe on how to make dough.

ISP: Were you always interested in learning how to cook?

Yeshi: I liked helping my family prepare dinners, specially when they were big meals. I liked really liked that.

ISP: What made you want to open a Momo bar?

Yeshi: I thought people would like to eat Momos here.

ISP: Are Momos usually a fast food in Tibet or are there restaurants that only serve Momos?

Yeshi: There are Momo restaurants, places where you can sit down and order a meal. 

The Tibetan Momo Bar in Center Ithaca is one of my favorite places to get a quick and delicious lunch in Ithaca. If you’ve never tried them you should definitely stop by soon! For more information on the price and meal options check out there menu here. 

This summer I will be exploring Ithaca and sharing my delicious finds here on the blog!


Guest Post: Creating Community in a Multinational Group of Students

Sasha1The following blog post was written by Sasha Endo who is teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) classes for us through the ONA grant.  She also is an ESL instructor for TST BOCES adult ESL classes.  We asked Sasha to give us more insight into what goes on in her classes.  Here is what she wrote:

I feel lucky to be teaching an English as a Second Language class that is quite diverse.  On any given day, there may be as many different countries of origin represented as there are students in the class, and that number increases when counting how many languages are spoken, since some students come in already bi- or tri-lingual.

Of course, while teaching a multinational group of students, some communication challenges do emerge.  For example, students sometimes have difficulty understanding each other’s spoken English, since their accents are often influenced by their home languages, the common sounds of which may not be familiar to speakers of a different language.   And there may be other challenges to communication that are political as well as linguistic: the class often contains students whose countries have tense relations with each other, or that have complicated political histories.

Despite and because of these factors, my biggest feeling of success in the classroom so far has come not from students remembering to use the correct verb tense or preposition, but from a student saying that the class “felt like a family” to her.  It is this atmosphere that I strive for, and in which I believe the most language learning will occur, too.

I think that our classroom routines and activities contribute at least in part to this feeling.  At the beginning of each class, we begin with a “check-in” question, each student sharing something about how they are feeling or what they have done that day.  In these contributions, we learn about how people’s jobs are going, whose children are sick, who likes the heat and who likes the cool weather, and the fact that our lives are at once impressively varied and also full of overlaps and common interests.

Depending on the unit, we also learn about each other through our writing and speaking practice.  I have asked students to tell folktales from their home countries, to present about customs from and misrepresentations of their countries, and to write vignettes about turning points in their lives.  Through these types of expression, we have learned about students’ areas of expertise and previous job experiences that often go unrecognized in the United States, seen people’s pride in their cultures’ uniqueness, and also noticed that many similar milestones of births, and schools, and moving to new places, mark many of our stories about ourselves.

And yes, even grammar can bring out the connections between us, as I have noticed while having students practice these points by sharing information about themselves.  After all, it was during a lesson on the perfect tenses that we realized that the Brazilian student was not the only one who “had ever” watched a Brazilian soap opera; an Armenian student was also a regular viewer of Brazilian soap operas, albeit ones dubbed into Russian.

Occasionally, it feels like it would save time to use more ESL workbooks or other commercially sold materials in class.  But, I think that there is much more to be gained, in both language and emotional terms, from using students’ stories and personalities as the main resources of the class.  Providing ways for students to connect with each other has even led to some friendships that carried over outside of class, and has given us a great environment for using and improving English.


Meet Intern: Sarah Browne

sarah pic2As long as I can remember I have held the desire to meet and learn about people from countries other than my own.  During my senior year of high school, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Valencia, Spain, which gave me the chance to fully immerse myself into another culture and attain an advanced level of Spanish.  It was from this experience that I developed an understanding of not only the wonders of discovering a foreign place, but also the hardships that come along with living outside the borders of one’s country and language.  I, for the first time, understood the frustrations of not being able to fully express myself and developed a deep respect for those who deal with this on a daily basis.

Naturally, given my background, I was more than thrilled at the prospect of working as part of the Immigrant Services Program at Catholic Charities.  During my time here I have gotten to hear the stories of people from all over the world.  As the program assistant, I meet with clients in search of work, find suitable jobs for them, and produce their résumés and cover letters.  Through meeting all of these people, I’ve learned so much about their cultures and gotten the opportunity to reflect on my own.

The other day I met an energetic young man from Congo, who came in for a computer class that we offer here at Catholic Charities.  I told him that I was impressed by his level of English and he told me that he is still trying to improve so that he can eventually get his Master’s degree here. “Nothing is impossible.” he replied with a smile on his face.

I believe that this is the common denominator among the people who I’ve met while working here.  Every day that I come to work I have the privilege of meeting the most driven, humble, hard-working people and for that I am deeply grateful.

Thank you Catholic Charities for this humbling opportunity.


Sarah is studying Spanish and Sociology at Ithaca College.