Ithaca Welcomes Refugees Responds to Global Crises

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Tompkins Weekly       6-13-16

By David Rhodes

Imagine if you were about to be born, and you didn’t know if you were entering the world now or 100 years from now. What approaches to environmental protection would you want to see in place from this position of uncertainty?

Now imagine you were about to enter the world into either a situation of peace and stability or one of lethal risk to yourself and your loved ones. What approaches to refugee resettlement would you want to see in place?

In both of these scenarios, the goal is the same—a world in which present and future generations have access to resources and opportunities that enhance the ability to live peaceful, healthy and meaningful lives. This concept lies at the heart of sustainability and it connects directly to the work of a new community initiative called Ithaca Welcomes Refugees (IWR).

 IWR is aIthaca Welcomes Refugees logon organization comprising volunteers dedicated to creating a fair and welcoming environment for refugees who come to our region. We believe that when people are faced with impossible choices and forced to weigh risks to their lives and the lives of their loved ones as they leave their homes to seek refuge, we can stand up and offer support and community. Ithaca has been a place of refuge in the past, and there have been ongoing efforts to serve newcomers through the decades.

Our work is part of these efforts, intended to enhance the ability of our communities to respond in an organized and intentional way to the global crises of today. As unsustainable practices and conflicts lead to increasing numbers of displaced people, part of creating a more sustainable world is to ensure that refugees have access to opportunities and feel welcomed into new communities.

With regard to ensuring access to opportunities, IWR volunteers focus on many aspects of relocation, including housing, employment, education and health care.We work closely with other local organizations, such as BOCES and Catholic Charities, to help ensure that needs are met and opportunities are accessible to refugees in our area. As we continue to build the volunteer network of IWR, it is inspirational to see people of all ages and from diverse backgrounds join together to contribute to these efforts on a variety of levels.

To create a welcoming atmosphere in Ithaca, IWR is also engaged in community education and events related to refugees with the goal of deepening understanding and bridging divides.

Part of deepening our understanding involves hearing the stories of individuals who have already come to Ithaca and the surrounding area; stories of fear and survival, stories of harrowing journeys through refugee and transit camps, stories of determination to not only survive but to thrive, stories of integration into new communities with the dedication to create new beginnings and make meaningful contributions.

In each of these stories, there is the infinite complexity of individual identities that cannot be contained in the term “refugee” or in any of the categories we create. We may, for example, meet a refugee from Syria and initially we may only know that she is a Muslim woman from a war-torn country. Then, we may find out that she is also a mother, a daughter, a sister and a wife, with wide ranging interests, political beliefs, personal preferences. The list of particular aspects of individual identity would be infinite.

Voices of refugees break down the barriers of “us” and “them” and have the potential to unite people in a sense of shared responsibility and hospitality. The stories not only inspire members of IWR, but are also a part of the lived experience of some of the members of IWR.

As we move forward, the experiences and insights of people who have faced the realities of being a refugee can help guide our efforts and motivate us to work together towards a more sustainable world. The common goal of sustainability inherently transcends the particular communities with which we identify, and can instill hope in our potential to thoughtfully engage with unfolding crises.

Ultimately, strengthening our communities and assuming a global perspective on responsibility will be essential to address global challenges and meet the needs of people who have been displaced or will be in the future.

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