OSWEGO – Seven years ago, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, through the state Dept. of State, coordinated with 27 neighborhood-based immigration service providers in 21 cities to offer free assistance to individuals seeking to learn English, obtain legal counseling, and access state services and guidance through the immigration and naturalization process. That collaboration was later codified in law as the Office for New Americans, making it the only permanent agency of its kind in the nation.
And now it has come to Oswego as an interfaith-based affiliate known as Oswego Welcomes Refugees.
As COVID protections, anti-immigration restrictions, and legal barriers erected to discourage those seeking asylum here resulted in historically low levels of immigration, it quickly became obvious Oswego and the county as a whole were not being overrun with refugees. In fact, the opposite was true. While, according to the U.S. Dept. of State, neighboring Onondaga County is home to thousands of refugees, having taken in 25% of New York’s 5,026 refugees just between October 2015 and September 2016 alone, Oswego County is home to none.
Therefore, Oswego Welcomes Refugees, though established to help those fleeing violence and persecution, kept the name but expanded its mission to include all new Americans, whether refugees or standard immigrants, focusing on the wider new-American community and spreading its message of tolerance, understanding, and assistance while building the bridges that will connect people and the infrastructure that will help them.
A Sept. 10 Zoom panel discussion moderated by Yara Osman, of the Office of New Americans, Central New York community navigator at InterFaith Works, and first generation immigrant, included panelists Paul Lear, Fort Ontario’s historic site manager; Kevin Hill, third ward Oswego councilor and council vice president, as well as Safe Haven Museum and Education Center board member; and new-American Paloma Sarkar, first vice president of enterprise risk management and strategic planning at Pathfinder Bank.
Titled “Parallels between Past and Present Immigration Influxes: County of Oswego” the panel discussion, Osman said, “seeks to celebrate Oswego’s rich history and historical ties to immigration. Through this dialogue, we aim to draw parallels to experiences of new-Americans residing in Oswego today as a way to establish empathy and mutual understanding. These dialogues are intended to ease the social isolation felt by many immigrants and refugees. It is also an opportunity for individuals to dispel harmful stereotypes and work toward creating a more inclusive and welcoming environment for all.”
Certainly, Oswego’s rich Safe Haven history as the only American refugee center of World War II cannot be denied and makes Oswego a natural fit for an organization named Oswego Welcomes Refugees. But Kevin Hill reminded those tuned in to the Zoom presentation that that history may not be as well-known by today’s Oswegonians as one might assume, admitting that he, a native Oswegonian, knew nothing of it until 2004, when as an intern with AmeriCorps, an independent federal agency designed to oversee and support domestic-service programs, he met former Safe Haven refugees returning to Oswego for a 60th reunion.
“It was kind of a shock to me that I didn’t know this history,” Hill said, “and we still see that today.”
Hill went on to say of the Safe Haven story, “I think it touches everybody in the city of Oswego because it’s so significant. It’s something we all really should hold near and dear.”
Furthermore, he said of Oswego, “We really do welcome people from all over the world. I’m happy to say that historically our community has maintained that welcoming attitude.”
Paloma Sarkar came to Oswego from India in 2010 to attend SUNY Oswego but soon found she wasn’t about to leave.
“This is what I call my home now,” she said and thanked Oswego for welcoming her so.
Hill believes it is a natural curiosity that inspires people to take an interest in those from other countries.
“I think that curiosity is what really sparks those relationships, gets people talking, communicating, understanding,” he said, “and I think it’s important that we keep that going.”
Richard Wood is secretary of Oswego Welcomes Refugees. He spoke about the organization in a recent interview.
“The group is just about a year old,” Wood said. “The idea is to be a clearing house of information on resources available for new Americans but also to do a lot of outreach. These community conversations try to increase interest in the community in new-American issues and in becoming a more welcoming community. They are a major component of the program.”
Too often segments of American society have railed against immigrants as here only for the welfare benefits and to suck the American social services dry while contributing nothing.
“New Americans are a net plus economically,” Wood said. “It is often the case that the first generation, the actual immigrants, consume more in services than they contribute in economic development. But, by the time you get to the second generation, it blows that away.”
Oswego is an excellent example of that with its many medical and university professionals.
Furthermore, Wood added, “many of the new Americans, and especially the second generation, avail themselves of the community colleges as well as four-year institutions like SUNY Oswego, like Syracuse University, like LeMoyne,” thereby adding to that highly-educated class of people that will benefit society in so many ways, economically, socially, professionally, and culturally.
But that is not an automatic step into American society for many who come here from other countries. There can be many difficulties to overcome, learning English being one of the main hurdles to success. Oswego Welcomes Refugees does not teach English directly. Wood said they simply don’t have the resources to do so. But they do direct new Americans to volunteers who help them in numerous ways, including learning the language. OWR is, however, quite focused on providing job training to those just arriving here. Locally, they are providing warehouse fulfillment training in the hope of gaining jobs for new Americans with Amazon.
Wood said OWR makes no distinction among new Americans based on documentation status and takes no position on sanctuary cities.
Syracuse is their home base, and their program focuses on Onondaga, Oswego, and Cayuga counties.
Wood said that in forming Oswego Welcomes Refugees, the Office for New Americans was well-aware of Oswego’s Safe Haven refugee history and saw Oswego’s potential.
“We hope and plan to build on that,” he said, “as a foundation to have future community conversations that address more current topics related to being a welcoming community.”
Oswego Welcomes Refugees will continue to address the challenges facing aspiring new Americans by offering open seminars, community conversations, and developing a network through InterFaith Works to assist new Americans who may already be among us while building bridges to welcome and bring new neighbors to Oswego. Oswego Welcomes Refugees is looking for other interested people who would like to assist in engaging and building a coalition to bring attention to new Americans while building a support structure in our own area to foster opportunity and hope for displaced persons, who can call Oswego, home. For more information about OWR, or if you would like to be added to the contact list, visit https://woodweb.knack.com/ifw-portal-owr-public/