December 5, 2021

Planning a welcome

Panel discusses ways to assist arriving immigrants

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

The Rev. Mikhail Marchuk, left, stands by as parishioners Sergey, center, and Galina Vovk, right, organize food pantry goods Thursday at the Ukrainian Pentecostal Church in Cortlandville. The church congregation assists immigrants from Ukraine who move to the Cortland area.

When Abdul Saboor immigrated to the United States from Afghanistan in 2014, and when Alexandru Balas came to America from Romania years ago and when the Rev. Mikhail Marchuk came from Ukraine in 1989, they all felt something in common: isolation.

This is something a new committee in Cortland, which formed Thursday, hopes to tackle. They’ll start by meeting Thursday mornings at the Cortland Community Center.

The committee was formed Thursday morning, during a discussion at the center about the challenges immigrants and refugees face in acclimating to a new culture.

Saboor — a grant coordinator for Interfaith Works, a Syracuse-based nonprofit that works to connect immigrant families to resources in their communities — hosted the talk.

He found the Cortland Community Center because of the work it does already helping people from other countries — it offers English as a Second Language classes.

Cortland is one of eight counties that have been identified as potential areas of growth by Interfaith Works, through a new program called Immigrant Community Advancement Network. The program seeks to help migrant workers, immigrants and refugees find employment and resources in the communities in which they settle.

The local English as a second language courses are great, Saboor said, but Cortland needs more. It takes an entire community’s commitment to help families adjust.

Marchuk, who is now pastor of the Ukrainian Pentecostal Church on McLean Road in Cortlandville, recalls how hard it was to adjust to a new life and new surroundings. He moved to Cortland in 1989 and didn’t speak English; he’d bring a dictionary to doctor appointments and sometimes sought translation help from SUNY Cortland professors.

Marchuk also had help from the Ukrainian church in Binghamton, and relatives in that area. Quickly after moving here he got work at Cooper Tools, employment he kept until the plant closed 25 years later in 2015.

Now Marchuk helps other Ukrainians new to the area: locate ESL classes; find vehicles and jobs. The entire church congregation bands together to help one another, he said, because starting out is hard, very hard.

“They could be thinking everything is easy, and when you get there you’re in paradise,” he said. “But you still have to work in the paradise.”

Saboor, through Interfaith Works, and the newly formed committee hope Cortland will some day have a specific entity that immigrants can be directed to for help with housing, social services or job skills training.

Michelina Gibbons, a SUNY Cortland employee was the first to volunteer to sit on the committee. Gibbons recalls how hard her mother worked to acclimate to American culture upon coming here from Italy.

Other members of the committee include Cortland resident Angela Wilde, an immigrant from Sweden, Cortland Community Center Director Kathy Fairchild, Seven Valleys Health Coalition Mobility Manager Ann Hotchkin, representatives from the Cortland Career Works Office and local faith-based organizations as well as Saboor and Balas.

Saboor said after the meeting that he thinks it’s a good sign the community has volunteers willing to tackle the issue.

Saboor came to America through a special class of Visa for Afghan nationals who helped the United States government since 2001 and are threatened in Afghanistan. He said it is in everyone’s interests to help immigrants.

“These are our neighbors,” he said. “If they struggle, we struggle, but if they thrive — become entrepreneurs, or business leaders — the community benefits.”