Former refugee Isnino Mohamed now works at Mary’s Place in Rochester. (Courier photo by Jeff Witherow)

Refugees in Rochester Diocese seek stability in new land

A family flees the threat of political violence in its homeland, but has nowhere else to call home.

Such was the plight facing Mary and Joseph at the time of Jesus’ birth. It’s also an apt storyline for thousands of people now living in the Rochester Diocese as refugees.

They arrive from all over the world with few possessions, little or no knowledge of English or the American culture, and no idea what their futures may hold. Many have waited for years at refugee camps in other countries before being legally able to reside in the United States.

One such person is Isnino Mohamed, 28, who spent the first 14 years of her life in camps in Kenya. That’s where her parents relocated in 1992 after a civil war broke out in their native Somalia the previous year. Her childhood memories of lowly camp conditions include excessive heat, insufficient food and water, and trying to sleep on floors while fending off scorpions.

“You think about, tonight are you going to get bitten?” she remarked.

Mohamed and her family were admitted into the U.S. in 2009, and she has lived in Rochester since 2021.

In the video above, Isnino Mohamed talks about her family and the civil war that broke out in her native country of Somalia in 1991.

More recently, Halyna Svitanok and her daughter, Kateryna, 17, arrived in the spring of 2023. One year earlier, they were forced from their home city, the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, when it was attacked by Russian troops.

“We heard everything, like bombs,” Halyna recalled through an interpreter. “I was scared, of course, because nobody knew about what’s going on and how it will end. There was a lot of panic.”

According to leaders of agencies and ministries that assist them, more and more refugees are arriving in the Rochester area. Leaders are imploring the public to extend acceptance and compassion to refugees as they seek to restore stability to their lives.

“Many don’t realize the challenges these people go through,” said Isabel Miller, executive director of Saint’s Place, a ministry of Pittsford’s St. Louis and Fairport’s St. John of Rochester parishes. “They leave their homeland; they didn’t want to go; they’ve left family members; they don’t speak our language.”

“We take care of them because we should take care of them,” added Mark Hare, president of Mary’s Place, a refugee support center in the former Holy Rosary Church in Rochester.

Mary’s Place Refugee Outreach offers food, clothing, tutoring, counseling, English classes and more for refugees. (Courier file photo)

Influx of immigrants to the Rochester area is on the increase

Michele Quinn, associate director of Saint’s Place, said the ministry — which provides refugees with clothing, furniture, household goods, school supplies, tutoring and scholarships — served approximately 1,200 refugees in 2023, with the number expected to rise to 1,400 in 2024. Quinn added that these figures do not include the hundreds of Ukrainians who are here temporarily under a federal sponsorship program, by which supporters agree to finance their stays. 

Danger from war is the leading factor driving people from their home countries, according to Getachew “GG” Beshir, the refugee, immigration and employment director for Rochester’s Catholic Charities Family and Community Services.

Who are refugees?

According to the U.S. government’s Citizenship and Immigration Services website, refugees are defined as people who are located outside of the United States; are of special concern to the U.S.; have been persecuted or fear persecution “due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group”; are not firmly resettled in another country; and are admissible to the U.S.

Ukrainian refugees cross the Ukraine-Poland border in Medyka, Poland, April 12, 2022. (CNS photo by Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)

After typically long waits in camps, refugees can legally move to such new countries as the United States after receiving government clearance. Beshir and Hare said the bulk of refugees in the Rochester area arrive from Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe, with large recent surges from Ukraine and Afghanistan.

In Rochester, Catholic Charities is a lead agency in the resettlement process, attending to refugees’ needs when they first arrive. Assistance may include housing; job training; advocacy for social services, health care and citizenship; and improving language skills.

Mary’s Place is among the ministries that continue aiding the resettlement process as time goes on, distributing food and hygiene products; offering English classes; assisting with paperwork; and translating.

“The number one thing they come here for is help reading the mail,” Hare said.

Refugees were forced from residences in their native lands

Understanding English has been a slow process for the Svitanoks as well, they acknowledged. However, they’re glad to be safely residing at Notre Dame Retreat House in Canandaigua, where they’ve lived since the summer. Halyna is the facility’s full-time housekeeper, and her daughter works there part time while attending high school at Canandaigua Academy.

Halyna noted that back in Kyiv, nearly all the residents of their 200-family apartment complex evacuated in 2022 because of fighting. The Svitanoks relocated to another part of Ukraine for a year before coming to the Rochester area, where they initially stayed with relatives.

Whereas the Svitanoks are new arrivals in this country, Mohamed has now been in the U.S. for 14 years. She said her family was forced to flee Somalia due to warfare in which teenage boys were pressed into military service, women and girls were raped, and families had all their possessions taken away and were killed if they protested any of these actions. After the car taking her parents and others Somalis to Kenya broke down, they spent two weeks walking to the border across a forest and amid the threat of warfare, lions and hyenas, surviving by eating the leaves of trees and drinking their own urine.

Growing up in the refugee camps, she feared some days that her father wouldn’t come home alive from working in construction. Several of his coworkers were killed when the holes they were digging collapsed on them, she explained.

Yet not long before the war began, Mohamed said, her family had lived comfortably.

“You had everything and, in the blink of an eye, you have nothing,” she remarked.

In the video above, Mohamed talks about the refugee camps that she lived in.

Advocates call for being accepting, welcoming of refugees

Mohamed said she hopes more U.S. residents will consider these types of hardships when forming attitudes about refugees.

“They come here (because) they had no choice,” she said, adding, “Just think about that before judging someone.”

Regarding potential mistrust of refugees, Beshir said “refugees are the most vetted type of immigrants that come to the US” — even more so since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. This thoroughness, he added, accounts for the lengthy wait to obtain legal refugee status.

Beshir asserted that there’s a low crime rate among refugees, and they contribute far more to the economy than they take from it. Hare added that what he sees many refugees do to survive — such as young mothers with broken-down cars who work multiple jobs — is “just astonishing.”

Quinn noted that many local residents do support refugees through donations to Saint’s Place and by interacting with the refugees while volunteering there.

“It’s really, really inspiring,” she said.

Halyna and Kateryna are experiencing similar warmth at Notre Dame Retreat House that helps fill in for the family and friends whom they miss back home.

Source: U.S. Department of State Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration refugee case management system.

Click on the icon to the left of the map title to see a list of countries or click on any of the blue markers. Blue represents the nationalities of the refugees that came to New York state from October-December 2023.

“Everybody’s so nice to us. We’re really grateful,” Halyna said.

Kateryna said she hopes to attend college in the U.S. and return to Ukraine after the fighting with Russia stops. Her mom said she also would like to return to their homeland and resume her career in accounting.

On the other hand, Mohamed — who became a U.S. citizen in 2016 — has established roots in Rochester and expresses appreciation for what many Americans might take for granted.

“I can earn some money, I have a roof over my head. I have food, I have water, a bathroom,” said Mohamed, who serves as a part-time receptionist at Mary’s Place.

“One thing that my dad said to me is, home is where you feel safe. It’s not like where you’re born,” she added. “Here, I feel it’s my home.”

In this video, Mohamed talks about her life now in the U.S.

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