- Over 10 million Syrians are currently forced out of their homes by the civil war in their home country. Of that number, 6.6 million are displaced internally and 4.6 million are actively seeking asylum elsewhere.
- Mayor Svante Myrick announced late last year the city of Ithaca will welcome those displaced by the war and provide opportunities for resettlement.
- A recent plan outlined by Catholic Charities of Tompkins and Tioga calls on the city to take in and resettle 50–60 refugees starting in October 2016.
Grassroots Organizations Emerge
Walaa Maharem-Horan helped found the grassroots movement Ithaca Welcomes Refugees earlier this year in response to a growing refugee population in the United States. Working in conjunction with religious activist groups like Catholic Charities of Tompkins and Tioga, Maharem-Horan hopes to address the current crisis in Syria.
The refugee issue has been a divisive one, both locally and in the United States on the whole. She said the movement in Ithaca is actively fighting against misconceptions concerning the new wave of refugees.
“The first step we’re taking is with public awareness and education,” she said. “We will be combating a lot of Islamophobia.”
Maharem-Horan currently chairs the movement’s fundraising subcommittee. In addition to helping refugees secure housing, education and language learning opportunities, the organization encourages donations to help pay for things like new mattresses, furniture and healthcare.
She said although organizations like Catholic Charities give an allowance of 900 dollars to each refugee family, it’s often not enough for individuals who are coming here with nothing.
“By the time the UN gets a refugee’s application … it’s a three year process with at least four different verifications,” she said. “By the time they get here, they’re already in debt.”
The Debate Over Syrian Resettlement
Maharem-Horan is battling opposition that can be seen across the country from politicians and citizens alike. According to a recent Bloomberg Poll, 53 percent of adults taking part in the survey said the United States should not accept any refugees from Syria, and 11 percent supported acceptance of Christian refugees only.
Since the mass sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany, debate has risen to a fever pitch in Europe and across the globe. American politicians look to the Cologne attacks to justify supporting a no-immigration policy for Syrian refugees. Additional concerns include the fear that an open-door policy could allow ISIS militants into US borders.
Catholic Charities and the Work on the Ground
Laurie Konwinski, deputy director of Catholic Charities of Tompkins and Tioga, is well aware of this national atmosphere. Despite this, however, she proposed a resettlement program to Ithaca’s Common Council last Wednesday.
Catholic Charities is moving toward becoming a legal resettlement agency, she said.
“If we are the resettlement agency – which would begin Oct. 1 of this year – we will take special responsibility for the first 90 days … in that particular time frame we would be responsible for ensuring that we have a housing situation set up for them, we have food in the fridge,” she said.
In addition to providing help to those navigating the housing market, Konwinski said the organization is committed to helping refugees connect with language education, job searches and childcare services. She said refugee families are under the umbrella of Catholic Charities for three months, and the tools they provide will help them to become independent.
“We are trying to move people toward self-sufficiency. People coming out of such terrible situations … it’s just unthinkable,” she said. “It’s easy to want to hold these people’s hands for the next twenty years … our goal is to guide them to the point where they can make a life here.”
Catholic Charities has had an important community connection through Ithaca Welcomes Refugees. Maharem-Horan said her grassroots organization is happy to take on the “little stuff” to support the work of local religious organizations.
“Ithaca is a sanctuary city,” Maharem-Horan said. “We have a history of helping refugees. Our community bands together; there are people who don’t support it, but there are plenty more people who want to help.”
Ithaca Welcomes Refugees will be holding a charity gala April 30 at Cornell to raise funds for Syrians resettling in the United States.