World Refugee Day Event Celebrates and Recognizes Our Diverse Community
Christina Whiteside, administrative associate at the Community Foundation, visited the World Refugee Day Celebration at the Philanthropy Center on June 20th and shares with us her first-hand experience of this heart-warming and eye-opening event.
In the early afternoon hours on June 20th, InterFaith Works staff and volunteers gathered in the ballroom of the Central New York Philanthropy Center to celebrate World Refugee Day (WRD). On this day, people from all over the globe recognize the strength and courage – and show support for – the families that are forced to flee war-torn countries.
As attendees filed in and got settled, Olive Sephuma, director for the Center for New Americans at InterFaith Works (IFW), and Haji Adan, executive director of Refugee and Immigrants Self-Empowerment (RISE), introduced themselves and pressed play on a video.
While watching, I couldn’t help but take off my journalism hat and get lost in the refugees’ stories being featured. Stories of young adults, torn from their families in the face of crisis, tugged at my heart strings. As I listened, tears started to well up in my eyes. I remember thinking that even my worst days are nothing compared to what refugees in our community have encountered and endured.
The panel was moderated by IFW’s Executive Director Beth Broadway and included Abdul Saboor, matching grant coordinator at InterFaith Works’ Center for New Americans (CNA) and Dominic Robinson, vice president of economic inclusion for CenterState CEO. Saboor oversees the Match Grant Program that helps families achieve self-sufficiency within their first 180 days in the country. Robinson oversees multiple programs that assist refugees, including the Northside Urban Partnership (a neighborhood revitalization initiative), Work Train (an employer-led workforce development platform), and Up Start (a business incubation and development program that targets minority and neighborhood based entrepreneurs).
CNA provides resettlement and crucial post-resettlement services to help refugee, entrant and asylum families re-establish their lives and overcome barriers. They help families get their children registered for school, assist with applications for social security cards, connect them with job screenings and ESL class enrollment, and ensure that they have a primary care doctor in place.
Saboor describes the process as a puzzle – each piece is carefully woven into a bigger, more important picture. Saboor himself immigrated to the United States from Afghanistan in 2014. From 2007 to 2012 he taught counterinsurgency and counterterrorism measures to Afghan and NATO soldiers and later worked with USAID and AECOM International. In addition to his full-time role at InterFaith Works, he is a full-time undergraduate student at Syracuse University.
“There’s more to [resettlement] than you would think,” Saboor said. “You have to think about cultural adjustment, community orientation and engagement with other services that they might need.”
At one point in the discussion, the panel explained how many immigrants and refugees go through an “identity change” in order to assimilate to their new surroundings.
“In order for you to be able to flourish and thrive in a community, you must accept the new norms or otherwise, you’re considered an outsider or the other guy,” Saboor said. “I’ve personally experienced it myself. I notice it, too, with the comments our refugees make to me.”
Saboor points out that refugees face challenges in learning to live in the American culture that requires them to adapt.
“For example, when it comes to Eastern culture, punctuality and time means something different,” Saboor said. “But when you come to the Western side, it’s a totally different perspective. These are the areas of your life that you have to accept and change over time.”
In 2016, according to InterFaith Works, CNA resettled a total of 705 refugees from all parts of the world, including Cuba (256), Democratic Republic of Congo (147), Somalia (93), Syria (76), Bhutan (48), Iraq (40), Burma (30), Afghanistan (25), Ukraine (22), Sudan (18), Burundi (9) and Eritrea (6). Since 1981, approximately 6,000 refugees have resettled in Syracuse.
As attendees filed out of the event, they left with a better understanding of what immigrants and refugees are faced with on a daily basis and the obstacles they have to overcome to enjoy the simple freedoms we Americans can sometimes take for granted. Later that evening, more than 200 people gathered at Dr. Weeks Elementary School for a community dinner and celebration. Over $4,000 was raised during World Refugee Day this year, which will seed the World Refugee Day Fund, administered by the Central New York Community Foundation. The fund will allow IFW and RISE, along with partner agencies, to host WRD community events in the future.
“The Community Foundation is a natural place to serve as the home for this fund because we are a trusted steward of community resources,” said Jennifer Owens, senior vice president and chief development officer at the Community Foundation. “The organizations involved know that we will always keep the purpose of the fund at the forefront and that we will manage the funds appropriately.”
In addition to administering the World Refugee Day Fund, the Community Foundation has historically been a consistent supporter of organizations that help immigrants and refugees find success in Central New York. Over the past 10 years, it has distributed nearly $1 million in grants to organizations that provide support services to new Americans. Funded projects have included literacy and English-as-second-language education, cultural events and workforce preparation. In addition, numerous refugee organizations have benefited from the Community Foundation’s strategic initiatives including The Leadership Classroom, a training program for grassroots groups that want to be active in improving the quality of life in their neighborhoods.
As for Saboor, he will continue to be a shining example for the families he serves at InterFaith Works and beyond.
“We need more people involved,” Saboor said. “Individuals who can serve as role models to share their stories, struggles and ways they faced all those challenges. By simply hearing those stories, these newly arrived Americans will see the light at the end of the tunnel. It will help them see impossible as possible.”