The World at our Doorstep: Embracing Refugee Resettlement

Executive Summary

Syracuse has a long history of welcoming new populations. For seventy years we have been a refugee resettlement site but there has been a recent boost in arrivals with the average number of new refugees increasing from 450 individuals to over 800 individuals annually – coinciding with the United States opening its doors to more refugees in 2008.

As the refugee population grows and becomes increasingly visible, questions about their adjustment within our community have emerged. The economic downturn exacerbated a perception that the refugees are a drain on services, take jobs, are unable to function due to literacy issues, and other “story lines.” Yet their presence is attributed with keeping the population stable and success stories abound.

When the OCL Board of Directors selected refugee resettlement as its 2012 study topic, its primary purpose was to develop a clearer picture and understanding of the refugee dynamic in Onondaga County—the needs, the service continuum and the opportunities new refugee populations offer—and to recommend programming and policies to help us become a more welcoming community.

The OCL study has already made Syracuse a model for refugee resettlement by convening refugees, stakeholders and community members. Service providers, refugees and concerned individuals, some of whom did not know each other, have networked, shared information and explored ideas that wouldn’t have been accessible to them without these dialogues. This networking helped lay the groundwork for Syracuse to become one of only 20 cities nationwide invited to apply for a $1 to $5 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. We see this study as a beginning, as the opening of doors to greater possibilities; this is similar to how many refugees view us—Central New York as a region of hope.

The study process involved bi-monthly meetings at two locations near the Northside, with 25 people attending each meeting on average (over 100 people participated overall.) Representatives from the two official refugee resettlement agencies (Catholic Charities and Interfaith Works) and their partner program (the Refugee Assistance Program at SCSD, or RAP) were present, as were other agencies, civic officials, grassroots organizations, current and former refugees, volunteers and interested community members. Presentations were given on refugee resettlement processes and timelines, literacy, jobs, housing, health/mental health, crime and safety, K-12 education and grassroots organizations, including those run by refugees themselves. Two free films about refugees in other communities were shown in a public forum, and OCL is partnering with the Onondaga Historical Association on five oral histories by current and former refugees.

The full report contains an infographic delineating the country of origin of the 7,201 refugees who have come to call Syracuse home since 2001. Currently the five largest refugee populations in Syracuse are, in order: Burma, Bhutan, Somalia, South Sudan and Iraq. The report identifies the facts around each of the focus areas that were explored, identifies successes and weaknesses, and makes recommendations for the future. Overall we found again and again that people are working cooperatively as much as possible, while still observing pockets of committed and caring groups and individuals sometimes working in isolation;that our resettlement agencies and programs are well thought of and do a great deal with few resources; and that several examples of best practices were to be found in our own backyard. To continue the collegiality and learning environment established during the study process, and provide a mechanism for enhanced communications and efficiencies, first and foremost we recommend that the 2012 Study Committee on refugees should be considered the beginning of a more formal, on-going Refugee Task Force. The Task Force should include representation from refugee community organizations, resettlement agencies and RAP, the medical community, literacy organizations, government, police and fire officers, landlords, current and former refugees, Syracuse City School District, grassroots organizations , Social Service agencies, volunteers and tutors. The Task Force should provide timely and regular communication of the numbers and needs of the refugees and other data to the many other entities that will come into contact with them, and facilitate this knowledge to the community at large.

Local Resettlement Process: Findings and Recommendations

The two resettlement agencies, along with RAP, handle the demands of many refugees in a caring and cooperative manner -the heads of the three resettlement programs meet regularly and work cooperatively. As can be seen by the resettlement process timeline each refugee has multiple contacts and appointments in their initial days and weeks. The complexity of the process, especially in the initial and busy 90-120 days, is based mostly upon federal mandates and would require changes at a federal level. Therefore for the purposes of the study we concentrated on how the resettlement process connected locally; the activities of the resettlement agencies and RAP are interwoven through each area in the report and included, where appropriate, in the recommendations.

While these three separate entities are located within the same neighborhood, they are in separate facilities. We therefore recommend creation of a Refugee Resource Center, a single location for the refugees to go for information, services, meetings, medical appointments and classes – and where resettlement case managers could have office space. With transportation a hindrance to accessing services, one center for all or most of the refugees’ essential resettlement needs would greatly ease some of the complexity and stress on both refugees and agency staffs.

We also recommend a “Syracuse: The World at Our Doorstep” website with the dual purposes of

  1. providing information on resources to individuals (fromrefugees to sponsors to teachers) and organizations that serve the refugee populations; and
  2. informing the community at large about refugees’ cultures and homelands through a series of profiles about different refugee populations and stories about individual New Americans here in Syracuse.

Adult English Literacy Services and K-12 Programs: Findings and Recommendations

The diversity of classes, groups and tutors represent Syracuse’s understanding of how important literacy is to a refugee’s success, but the path to full literacy is not always easy for a newcomer to find or follow. There seems to be no one source that knows all of the options, or the best option for progression for an individual. We suggest that the Refugee Task Force help providers share resources to create a clearer, more organized and cohesive literacy service network, including a system showing all available programs, as well as a method of tracking where there are openings for different skill levels to ensure that use of available services is maximized. We found that a number of programs imaginatively utilize ESL lessons, from businesses to community gardens, and these should be celebrated and encouraged.

The Syracuse City School District works very hard to serve the needs of the many students who don’t speak English fluently. Of the 20,754 students in the SCSD, around 12 percent (or 2,462 students) are ELLs, who speak a total of 74 different languages and represent 80 countries. Of these students, approximately 50 percent are refugees; Spanish-speaking students from Puerto Rico comprise the No. 1 group of ELLs (29 percent). SCSD has six nationality workers, five of whom are former refugees, who help orient the refugee youth. They work in partnership with the resettlement agencies and RAP.

We recommend that refugee students be placed in schools with the type of ELL resources to best serve them and that schools be creative in scheduling ELL classes to minimize the disruption in students’ attendance in content area classes. We encourage the district to explore expanding the peer buddy systemto more schools. We recommend that all teachers, administration and staff be provided with professional development on ELL techniques and with background on the nations, and conditions, of origin. Finally, we urge SCSD representatives to connect more closely with other stakeholders and participate in the community-wide Task Force.

Housing: Findings and Recommendations

Throughout Syracuse affordable quality housing remains an issue for native born and refugee alike. Entities such as the Refugee Landlord Association and Cooperative Federal offer great examples and evidence of seeing refugee tenants and homeowners as assets to the community. Agencies, case managers, volunteers and sponsors help with cultural transitions and have lists of refugee-friendly landlords. Most refugees are initially housed on the Northside since this is where the agencies are located and refugee communities– residential and businesses – wish to remain in close contact with each other. Refugees are placed initially in private rental apartments but can choose to stay in initial placement or move to private rentals or public housing.

We encourage the City of Syracuse to help landlords bring housing up to code and rehabilitate existing housing, especially larger, affordable rental units for large families. Housing agencies should be encouraged to provide cultural competency training of staff, and referral to those landlords who have experience renting to refugees, information and encouragement to other property owners, and ongoing assistance to familiarize refugees to tenant rights and responsibilities. Refugees look forward to becoming homeowners and need creative solutions to counteract lack of credit or cultural/religious prohibitions on taking loans.

Economic Opportunities & Jobs: Findings and Recommendations

There are currently imaginative approaches which offer some shining examples of how to support and strengthen refugee employment opportunities, from the Green Train and Health Train programs at Northside UP to the “Pizza grant” at Catholic Charities. Local businesses report that refugee employees have a wonderful work ethic and few disqualifying factors. The unemployment rate for the Central New York region in general is too high and efforts to bring more businesses to our community might be enhanced with the knowledge of this eager labor force. Businesses that employ refugees and offer them opportunities for personal growth should be recognized as a way of encouraging other businesses to consider hiring refugees.

Entrepreneurial programs are a great opportunity to build refugees’ economic sustainability, as are projects that provide mentorship in U.S. business practices. The City of Syracuse should pursue the World Market Square concept on the Northside to solidify and accelerate it development as an “international village” that spurs business and property development.

Crime & Safety: Findings and Recommendations

Since 2009, two officers, Detective Dzenan Selimovic, a former Bosnian refugee and Officer Varosh Zarian, a former refugee from Armenia, have been assigned to meet with new refugees and assist with cultural awareness with the city police – we commend the city for taking this proactive step and for making their participation in the study possible. We recommend that these liaison officers, along with other public safety officials, have regular office hours at the proposed Refugee Resource Center. In addition we learned that the Butternut Community Police Center on the Northside has been active in youth outreach, which also helps build trust – their work should be strengthened.

It was stressed the refugees need to understand the laws of the United States and the ramifications for breaking them. If convicted of a crime they receive the same punishment as the native born, but an additional outcome is that their ultimate path to citizenship is then in jeopardy. Refugees who need legal assistance for immigrations issues have several avenues: the Onondaga County Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Project has a law clinic and Hiscock Legal Aid Society helped 30 refuges with legal issues in 2011.However the need is large and resources are limited; this would bear further study.

Health: Findings and Recommendations

Once refugees are in the United States, they face the complexity of the U.S. health-care system with not only limited English, but often with customs at odds with Western medical practices. RAP coordinates screenings, appointments, vaccinations and transportation to all of the necessary visits. They also keep medical files for refugees, but several providers and health officials suggested that a more comprehensive, and accessible, database would be helpful. A single, centralized location for a refugee health clinic, connected to the Refugee Resource Center if possible, has the potential to allow for better coordination of medical care and to address the challenges of decentralized data systems.

During the study process we became aware of the extent to which many refugees carry the extra burden of trauma (psychological and physical) that negatively impacts their health. There are clinics and therapists that work with this population, but the difficulties with translation become enhanced when addressing issues of such personal pain. There is a goal of training more mental health workers and partnering with ECBOs to help reach out to those in need. We recommend that the issue of refugee mental health be further studied and that the ECBOs and other volunteers be trained to help alleviate the problems.

The County’s OnCare program is piloting a Refugee Youth Project which includes mental health screenings, family case management and youth support groups for newly arrived refugee youth. In addition they are developing “cultural brokers” to help navigate the system and translate both for language as well as cultural approach. These models should be evaluated and, if successful, brought to scale and resourced appropriately.

Finally we recommend that the Refugee Health Task Force assess and address a concern that was raised about family planning, a culturally-charged practice for some groups. In the meantime we recommend that agencies and their volunteers be provided with Health Department referral information to provide to women.

Social Support: Findings and Recommendations

While resettlement agencies and RAP offer programs that extend beyond the management of initial resettlement, their work is supplemented by many vital grassroots organizations and projects. Mostly volunteer run, these groups offer assistance in daily living, entrepreneurial skills, classes,
conversational English, cooking and youth sports. The study process helped many of their stories emerge and we witnessed strong connections being made; therefore we recommend that these groups be represented and/or their offerings regularly shared with the larger Refugee Task Force.

In addition the Ethnic Community-Based Organizations (or ECBO’s) offer their fellow refugees programs for English literacy, citizenship and job training classes, after-school tutoring program and youth soccer teams. We recommend that the capacity of the ECBOs be strengthened with leadership training, additional resources, offices and meeting space. We further urge that their representatives are included whenever anyone in the community, or positions of power, are discussing refugee needs and opportunities.


This report takes a huge step forward in providing the base information necessary to dispel some of the myths about refugees in our community and we are hopeful that this information will be kept up to date and available to our community. We learned we are welcoming in many many respects, but that we need to continue to strengthen cooperation to enhance this welcome.

We are hopeful that champions will emerge to embrace, adopt and deliver on these recommendations. We are well aware additional resources, both financial and in human capital, are required to see almost all of these come to fruition, though continued collaboration could bring about great results – we have the pieces in place and indeed, are considered a “best practice” refugee resettlement community in many regards. The actions we recommend might be targeted towards helping this new population but are built on the premise that by helping them, we help ourselves.

A pdf of the full study document may be accessed at The World at Our Doorstep (7.8mb PDF)

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