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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


Guest Post: Meet Marcy, Refugee Family Sponsor

marcy postISP would like to highlight Marcy, one of many refugee sponsors Ithaca is fortunate to have.  This past year, she agreed to informally sponsor a family of five who originated from Burma, and then spent time in a refugee camp at the Thai/Burmese border before coming to the U.S.  She graciously stepped up and is assisting them as they resettle their lives here.  Ithaca has a large group of individuals who volunteer their time and have been helping refugees in resettling their lives in the U.S. for many years. Our community greatly benefits from them, as does Ithaca’s refugee community.

We asked Marcy to give us some insight into how she initially became a sponsor, the challenges the family faces as they get resettled, and how this experience is affecting her life.  Here’s what she said:

Over 2 years ago a colleague of mine sent out a group mail asking for someone to assist her with helping a family she was sponsoring who came from Burma.  I had just stopped working and had a little spare time so I volunteered.  At first, I started helping with providing them with occasional rides to dentists and some group outings, which were fun. The family then asked if I would sponsor some of their relatives who were still in a refugee camp.  They were a family of five with 3 children who were 2, 6 and 9 – and I agreed. I waited for over a year from the time I offered to sponsor them until they actually arrived.

When the family first came to the US, we searched for a place for them to live where the rent could be paid on the refugee cash assistance DSS was going to provide them. Learning the ropes of DSS was often very difficult and time consuming for me; however, the people who work there showed they were very caring and this made it easier.  It was discouraging at first because Ithaca Housing Authority (IHA) told us they had a 1-3 year waiting period and Section 8 was a 3-5 year wait.   Luckily the other sponsors counseled me through many ups and downs of locating affordable housing. The family stayed with their relatives for longer than allowed by IHA so we took an opening at an apartment complex and signed a 1-year lease. After 10 months IHA had an opening (which was also near their relatives) so now they have affordable housing.

The family has faced different challenges as they get resettled here.  For example, one of the most difficult times for them was the three mile walk they often took during the winter between their first apartment and the baby’s day care.  They got a bus pass for part of the time but would still walk most of the time which was hard on both the parents and their children.  

Another obstacle they faced has been finding someone to interpret for them while they learn English.  Fortunately for them their relatives have been here for two years and they can help interpret for them and for me. Sometimes they would send their older child with us to help us translate at the doctor’s offices. Also the local hospital organization would hire translators to help at the adult’s visits. This was particularly helpful and promoted confidentiality.

Day care is another challenge for the family.  DSS pays for the baby to go to day care while the mother attends ESL classes, but since the child still breastfeeds, this has been difficult on both of them.  Also, DSS will not pay for the two older children, who are in elementary school, to attend the afterschool program School Interrupted Formal Education (SIFE) which they would greatly benefit from. This program allows the children to be able to get extra help plus allowing the parents to stay the full day at their ESL classes.

Dental health is something else the family is dealing with. The six year old has rotten teeth and his dentist wants to take 11 teeth out and fill the cavities in the permanent teeth. This will happen this summer. The dentist thinks this happened because of co-sleeping and nursing frequently day and night. He already sees that the teeth of the two year old are rotting and wants the mother to stop nursing so she doesn’t have to have the same thing done to her mouth (so far, the mother hasn’t taken his advice).

Getting them Internet and a computer that works has been very rough because of my lack of ability to work out kinks and troubleshoot. I gave them one of my old laptops and they got one of their friends or relatives to make it work but with three children it has just died. But,  ReUse Center gives them a discount on used computers that have operating systems all set up on them and we are getting one tomorrow. 

I have to admit I get just as much out of being a sponsor as they get from having one. They are a darling family, funny, hard-working, playful, appreciative and loving. To think of what they have been through and their day-to-day stresses there and now here makes even the toughest situations smoother for me. I don’t know if I will ever have grandchildren, so I consider this just loads of fun. If I stop by around dinner time I am offered dinner with them or a generous portion to take home to my family (which is excellent food that my family enjoys also).