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Albany plans for displaced families and refugees

November 22, 2013

by Cameron Miller

Albany Mayor-elect Kathy Sheehan

Albany Mayor-elect Kathy Sheehan

A population in Albany that goes largely unnoticed and unrecognized, and may be the population that arguably needs the most help and assistance from the community is the city’s refugees. Incoming Mayor Elect Kathy Sheehan told a gathering Thursday at the Hubbard Interfaith Sanctuary Thursday that a plan must be developed that unites the  power of city hall with the many non-profits to provide a stable plan of living for these families who are entering a completely new and disorienting culture.

Albany is a city that hosts a very high percentage of refugees because it is a fairly centrally located urban center that also has readily accessible public transportation, and access to jobs in a city that is affordable to live in. This makes Albany a target area for refugees from other countries who were forced out of their homes and are now in a place where they can start new lives. Sheehan hopes to address this issue that has been overlooked for far too long by city hall.

Many constituencies met on campus at The College of Saint Rose to talk about helping refugees get back on their feet and become self sustaining. Sheehan, who includes the issue in her new political platform, along with prominent members of Refugee and Immigrant Support Services of Emmaus and the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants discussed a plan  to better aid these new residents who are attempting to get integrated into an overwhelmingly different environment.

“You don’t become a refugee without being displaced,” Sheehan said. “The whole notion of being displaced is something that if you don’t experience or empathize with, you can end up causing more damage than helping.”

Mayor Elect Kathy Sheehan shares a smile with Jill Peckenpaugh at the Thursday night event./Kelly Pfeister

Mayor Elect Kathy Sheehan shares a smile with Jill Peckenpaugh at the Thursday night event./Kelly Pfeister

Jill Peckenpaugh, director of The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants is hopeful about this new effort but realizes there are still challenges for government- funded programs for refugees.

“We do struggle, there is initial funding for those first three months that helps refugees find an apartment, get furniture, find a job, all those crucial things, but it’s a thirty day program that can be extended to 90 days… I would love if there was a way to maintain a relationship with refugees for years and years but formally there is no way to do that,” Peckepaugh said.

While the committee is only able to help with the basic foundation, coordination between city hall and nonprofits like RISSE could help solve that problem. RISSE is a place for children and parents alike to begin to acclimate to the culture and education system of the United States. With their presence in the Pine Hills area beginning in 2007 RISSE offers after school programs for students that help with tutoring and also provides a social place for many foreign students with the same struggles to discuss what they are going through. The staff at RISSE is also diverse themselves which helps to forge a more comfortable environment for these families going through culture shock.

“It’s a very diverse place, so that helps a lot,” said Rifkat Filkins, executive director at RISSE. “We have people from Rwanda, our operations director is from Rwanda, and I’m from Pakistan.”

A Saint Rose student who volunteers at RISSE, Abby Brigham, found her way into the program during Urban Launch, and now has a work study position in the support center where she enjoys helping foreign students. “We tutor them and then help them and keep them busy. The adult program is mainly English classes to help them learn the language; it’s like a socializing platform for them too.”

Integration in school is key, Sheehan said. “What we realized is that we know how to get people out of poverty, you educate them. A good education is the path out of poverty. How do we ensure that every child has the opportunity to succeed? Looking at this population of youth is ideal to be doing it now. If we can build support systems outside and inside school systems now and do things in city hall that are part of the solution and not the problem than we will see the benefits in our city.”

The language barrier adds another layer of learning on top of basic comprehension, which makes it difficult for foreign students to keep up in class.

Transferring from another foreign education can be challenging as well, which is recognized by 28-year-old eight year old Olena Sadovnik, a Fulbright scholar at Saint Rose. While  attending graduate school  she has noticed many differences between her old education in Ukraine and the one she now receives.

At home, she said, “The process is about memorizing. They lecture and you take notes and do exams and you are done. Here I feel like students are more challenged. You need to express your opinion and support your opinion. It’s more about expressing yourself than memorizing something.”

For Sheehan, the future will tell. “If we start to proactively look at how we can better connect the refugees who are coming into this city looking for jobs, the faster we can get them employed and working, the faster they can get engaged in the community, and the faster they can provide for their families and not be worrying about ‘Where will I get my next meal?’” -30-

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