Catholic Charities program aids Ithaca-area immigrants, refugees - Catholic Courier

Catholic Charities program aids Ithaca-area immigrants, refugees

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a series of occasional profiles on Catholic Charities agencies and ministries in the Southern Tier.
Cecilia Montaner-Vargas said she "can definitely relate" to the plight of immigrants and refugees in Tompkins County — mainly because she’s lived the experience.
Some 30 years ago, Montaner-Vargas arrived in Ithaca from Chile with her daughter and her husband, a political refugee. Montaner-Vargas has resided in the city ever since, and now she shares her wisdom with fellow newcomers from distant lands.
This is accomplished through her role as director of the Immigrant Services Program, opened in September 2007 by Catholic Charities of Tompkins/Tioga. The program provides one-to-one support, mentoring and guidance to immigrants and refugees — as well as their families — who work and/or live in Tompkins County.
"I fought to have this program here because I believe it’s absolutely necessary," Montaner-Vargas said. "It’s very, very hard (as an immigrant or refugee) when you feel that you don’t understand what’s going on."
Montaner-Vargas observed that many difficulties are related to accessing human and government services — "from something to like applying for citizenship, to something as simple as filling out a food-stamp application," she said, adding that the process is anything but simple for folks who don’t understand English.
"If they don’t have the language, they don’t know how to navigate the system," she remarked. "They do not know how to fill out an application. We have a lot of requests from people in the process of becoming citizens; we get a lot of that. We help people access health insurance who don’t know how to go about it."
Through the Immigrant Services Program, Montaner-Vargas does initial screenings to address people’s immediate needs and then makes referrals to appropriate agencies. She also arranges volunteer support to aid immigrants and refugees in such areas as finding housing and understanding leases; getting translators for medical, social-services and employment appointments; securing social and economic support for elderly family members; helping parents communicate with teachers and other school personnel; finding transportation to job interviews, medical appointments and places of employment; writing resumes and building interview skills; handling medical emergencies and other medical issues; and solving employment/worker-rights problems.
Catholic Charities’ program operates in collaboration with numerous local organizations and churches. Participants also have access to ongoing goods and services provided by Catholic Charities of Tompkins/Tioga: a free clothing closet; free personal-care and household-cleaning items; prescreening for food stamps; limited emergency financial assistance; and help with payment of security deposits. This overall support system seeks to bring about stability so that immigrants and refugees can eventually retain employment, purchase cars and open bank accounts while becoming integrated into the community’s social infrastructure.
Montaner-Vargas emphasized that all immigrants and refugees are welcomed by the Immigrant Services Program regardless of where they’re from, the circumstances by which they came to the area or how long they’ve been in Ithaca. For instance, she said she still works with folks who were part of a wave of Eastern European immigration in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
"Now it’s second generation," she remarked. "The immigrants themselves are becoming older and still need services."
Response to the Immigration Services Program has been "overwhelming so far," Montaner-Vargas said, adding that Catholic Charities has already applied for an extension of its one-year grant from the City of Ithaca for the pilot program. She said the grant is based on serving 120 people over a year’s period, and the program had nearly reached that total less than six months into its existence.
Montaner-Vargas noted that area immigrants and refugees typically come from Burma, Thailand and China, as well as numerous Latin American and African countries, seeking service jobs in the city and farm work in outlying areas. She explained that Ithaca is attractive to such people because of the multicultural flavor lent by Cornell University and Ithaca College.
"Because of the diversity of the place, it’s easier to fit in," she said.
This diverse, academic setting also establishes Ithaca as "a much more open-minded community. People are more willing to serve as sponsors," Montaner-Vargas said, noting that she and her family were able to come here in 1978 because of a local sponsorship.
Tompkins residents have offered strong volunteer support since the Immigrant Services Program was launched, she added.
"The response is really great. A lot of people have come forward to help us out. This community is very generous," Montaner-Vargas said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: To learn more about the Immigrant Services Program, either as a client or volunteer, call Cecilia Montaner-Vargas at 607-272-5062, ext. 11.

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