My father tells a story: twenty years ago in Ballston Spa NY, someone spotted a group of Mexican immigrants walking up Route 50 in January. Just released from the Saratoga County jail, they had no coats or hats. They wore summer clothes and light shoes. They hunched against the biting cold as they made their way toward the local court house.
Apart from the many questions it raises about mistreatment of the vulnerable, this story makes me wonder. Do immigrants and refugees in the Capital Region now have better chances at fair treatment and equal opportunity?
All Are Welcome Here
“All Are Welcome Here” is a statement of hope. This article spotlights the work of Capital Region leaders providing resources for refugees and immigrants.
Despite growing up with English as my first language and with one American parent, as an immigrant, I often feel like an outsider. We moved to upstate New York from England when I was the fragile age of thirteen. I longed for the ready acceptance and belonging I’d known in my birth country. New to America and lonely, I felt a sense of fractured identity. My hope is that others who feel like they exist on the cultural fringes can share a sense of unity.
Since 2005, over 4,000 refugees have made their homes in the Capital Region. Refugees landing in Albany originate mostly from Afghanistan, Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, and Syria. In 2019, more than 64,000 immigrants lived in the Albany metro area, paying $647 million in taxes.
The UN Refugee Convention (1951) prohibits refugee warehousing. I would like to believe the Capital Region offers refugees and immigrants much more than protection of basic human rights. For these organizations, All Are Welcome Here is a mission – offering wide ranging resources to support and welcome newcomers.
Sunhee’s Community Place for the People
Born in Incheon, a port city in South Korea, Jinah Kim immigrated to the U.S. at age three with her parents. “It’s a classic immigrant American story,” Kim said. Her parents worked hard to open opportunities for her. Asked how her immigrant story informs her work with Sunhee’s Community Place, Kim replied, “It’s an extremely redemptive experience.”
Employment and Empowerment
Sunhee’s is a community resource for immigrant and refugee empowerment. About 400 refugees per year from around the world come to Sunhee’s for help with employment, etc. Sunhee’s offers adult English classes and a pantry package program.
Kim employs as many refugees and immigrants as possible. Asked what she has learned from refugees, she replied, “ [A] strong work ethic, resiliency – very core family values.” Kim sees a “sacrificial element,” where one generation gives up comforts so the next can reap the benefits. For example, her parents had to do back-breaking work that she does not. Kim spoke of people she knows who spent years waiting in refugee camps. “When you take the power of choice away, it really does have a mental toll.” Many of the refugees working at Sunhee’s have families stuck in poor conditions abroad. They are making the best of it. “Even though there’s no control over circumstances,” she said, “you can choose joy in the face of despair.”
Before founding Sunhee’s, Kim earned a degree in international relations from Boston College. “I’m a big advocate for liberal arts education precisely because of its flexibility.” Her concentration in Ethics and Social Justice led her to ask on a deeper level, “Why am I interested in this?”
Sunhee’s Kitchen/Restaurant and Farm promotes “positive food culture.” About motivation for working day to day, Kim said, “Keeping it going is where you really need the inspiration, after the flashy beginning!” She spoke of the growth that derives from an All Are Welcome Here approach. Through shared struggle, we build mutual respect and desire for community. “You think about what you’re left with,” Kim said. “And it’s a simple answer, it comes down to the people.”
Columbia County Sanctuary Movement
To combat unfair treatment of vulnerable immigrant populations, Columbia County Sanctuary Movement (CCSM) runs the Mano a Mano Mutual Aid Fund. The fund helps meet needs of immigrants in Columbia and Greene Counties during the Covid-19 pandemic. CCSM supports justice for victims of human trafficking. They serve as regional coordinator for Green Light NY, which addresses the right to driver’s licenses for people with diverse immigration statuses.
Founded in 2016 by three Latinx community members and an ally, CCSM exemplifies All Are Welcome Here. CCSM is governed by a twenty-two person committee. These include essential workers, detained youth, directly impacted, BIPOC, first generation immigrants, from mixed status families, survivors of domestic violence, LGBTQ, educators, organizers, allies, and activists. CCSM offers survival services and campaigns for systemic change. Do not open doors, CCSM’s website warns immigrants if ICE comes knocking. Remain silent. Report and record.
Change comes about through bottom-up organizing, solidarity and mutual aid. It’s built upon leadership by impacted people. CCSM acted to make Hudson, NY a sanctuary city. They carry out support, provide training, rapid response, and direct services to over 700 members.
Mano A Mano Fund
Tanushri ”Tanu” Kumar serves on CCSM’s Emergency Fund and Alternative Economy committees. The Emergency Fund Committee developed and implemented the Mano A Mano fund. Combined with programming, the fund provides financial support, resources, and services to meet the economic, food insecurity, and survival needs of immigrants in two counties. “Applications are reviewed on a first-come, first-serve basis. We prioritize those most impacted by the pandemic,” Tanu said. “We include those not eligible for government assistance.” The fund has given more than $75,000 in cash assistance since Spring 2020. They also offered food delivery.
Asked about challenges CCSM has faced, Tanu said: “The devastating impacts created by the current confluence of crises has exacerbated systemic injustices and community needs. CCSM responded with a programmatic pivot to level up our mutual aid to meet the survival needs of our members and communities.” The Mano A Mano Mutual Aid Fund has generously supported immigrants. “We also launched a food security program,” Tanu said. “From April 2020 and to the present CCSM has distributed over 185,000 pounds of food to immigrants in Columbia and Greene Counties.”
CCSM currently anchors the Fund Excluded Workers Campaign regionally. They are creating a Language Justice Campaign, and are involved in police reform and accountability work. “We hope to continue to build and grow our campaigns to address long-term, systemic injustices, and build member leadership,” Tanu said. “CCSM’s Alternative Economies is in its early stages of development and organizing.” Asked what inspires her about CCSM, Tanu said, “I’m proud to work with such an impactful organization led by a group of amazing, talented, and committed community members.”
RISSE (Refugee and Immigrant Support Services of Emmaus, Inc) helps recent immigrants and refugees create independent, sustainable lives. Their offices are situated in Albany’s Pine Hills neighborhood. Originally founded to advocate for Congolese refugees, RISSE has 501 (c)(3) nonprofit status. They partner with the Emmaus United Methodist Church and the College of Saint Rose. RISSE collaborates with the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, offering adult ESL classes and many other services.
Saratoga Immigration Coalition Seeks Essential Humanity
The Saratoga Immigration Coalition (SIC) is “a network of civic groups, faith communities, and concerned individuals” in Saratoga Springs, NY embodiesAll Are Welcome Here. SIC created the All Are Welcome Here campaign with MLK Saratoga. Through support, education and advocacy, SIC encourages “a community that is welcoming to all immigrants without regard to legal status.” SIC members include the Presbyterian—New England Congregational Church, Saratoga Friends Meeting, Saratoga Springs United Methodist Church, Saratoga Unites, Temple Sinai, and Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Saratoga Springs. SIC recently circulated a survey about police reform in Saratoga Springs, with the heading: “your voice matters.”
I interviewed Terrence Diggory, SIC co-coordinator (with Maxine Lautenberg). SIC offers transportation, connection to legal services, and English language tutoring. They’ve provided emergency funds during COVID-19. They offer scholarships for immigrant and first-generation students. SIC’s first effort was an “All Are Welcome Here” Walk and Vigil in Saratoga Springs on August 24, 2017. As volunteers connected with SIC, the organization connected with other service providers for immigrant community members.
SIC’s vision is “to create a just, welcoming and inclusive community. A community which honors immigrants and aspires to allow everyone to flourish without fear or intimidation.” Asked what inspires him about SIC, Diggory reflected, “Getting to know people from different backgrounds and experiencing the essential humanity that unites us all.”
Written by: Effy Redman
Effy Redman is a memoirist, educator, and disability advocate living in Ballston Spa, NY. She has published work in the New York Times, Vice, Ravishly, and Chronogram, among other places. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from CUNY Hunter College. Follow Effy on Twitter: @effyredman.