Engraved at the feet of Lady Liberty are the following words, part of a poem by Emma Lazarus called The New Colossus: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
The poem’s words certainly resonated with the Clay Presbyterian Church. As one of the church’s mission projects, parishioners donate food, clothing, furniture and more to the Center for New Americans to be used by refugees seeking to make their home in Central New York.
Many churches sponsor refugee families, said Bill Hayes, president of the church’s advisory board. As a small church, we can’t afford to do that. But we do what we can.
Clay Presbyterian is located on Stearns Road halfway between Route 31 and Caughdenoy Road. The small congregation has several mission projects dedicated to improving the community and helping those in need. In addition to providing goods and labor to the Center for New Americans, the church collects food for the Westminster Food Pantry and donates to the Christian Children’s Fund and Samaritan’s Purse. Church members also put together gift bags for area nursing homes, this year distributing 28 of the bags.
But the refugee program is one of the church’s biggest projects.
The program has really grown at our church, Hayes said. It just kind of happened. We picked up on it and continued with it.
Each week, Hayes said, he and other church administrators deliver a bag of items that members have dropped off at the church for donation, which include clothes, furniture, pots and pans, household items and more.
All of the donated items go to help refugees as opposed to other new immigrants. Hope Wallace of the Interreligious Council’s Center for New Americans explained the definition of a refugee.
It’s one of the things I find people aren’t aware of, Wallace said. The term is used so loosely here.
Wallace said that in order to be defined as a refugee, people must meet certain criteria outlined by the Department of Homeland Security. This is also the definition used by the United Nations. Refugees must apply before entering the U.S. and must have experienced life-threatening or potentially life-threatening persecution in their home country or will face said persecution if they return. They must have a credible fear for their lives, Wallace said. And the persecution has to be on the basis of religion, ethnicity, national origin or politics.
Wallace said that the percentage of immigrants who fit that definition each year is very small. She also noted that refugees should not be confused as those receiving asylum. While asylees must meet the same criteria, they are approved for asylum at the point of entry, whereas refugees must apply and go through an exhaustive interview process before arriving in the U.S. Once someone who meets the definition of a refugee arrives in the Syracuse area, the Center for New Americans steps in to help them get settled.
When the Department of Homeland Security sends someone here, we help them, Wallace said. We pick them up at the airport, bring them to an apartment that we have rented and furnished for them, provide them with a hot meal. One of the most important things is making sure their medical needs are met, since many of them may not have received medical care in 10 to 14 years.
The first few months of a refugee’s residence in Syracuse include significant assistance from the Center for New Americans.
We help adults enroll in English language training and put the kids in public school, Wallace said. We provide them with clothing and prepare them for employment. Everyone works within 120 days of arrival.
After the first few months, the aid provided by the Interreligious Council is more on an as-needed basis.
Most people adjust very well, Wallace said. The climate is always hard, as is English language learning, especially for adults. But I never had an adult who didn’t try.
Wallace said the largest numbers of refugees in the Syracuse area are from Somalia and Sudan, with some from Burma and Uzbekistan and smaller numbers from the Ukraine, the Congo and North Korea. Many are unprepared for the new life they must build in the U.S. That’s where churches like Clay Presbyterian step in.
When refugees come in for various things, educational programs and things, they don’t have gloves and hats because they come from hotter climates, Hayes said. They’re handed out right then and there.
Hayes was quick to point out that Clay Presbyterian is only a small part of a much larger program that helps area refugees.
So many churches donate to the program, he said. We’re just one small church.
Lots and lots of churches help, Wallace said. But Clay Presbyterian helps a whole lot. Not everyone else does as much as they do.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.