ITHACA, N.Y. — The five founding members of Ithaca Welcomes Refugees might be the human embodiment of the “COEXIST” bumper sticker. They are: two protestant pastors, a Muslim designer, a Jewish social studies teacher, and an aid worker who married into a Hindu family.

The organization – referred to as IWR – formed in December. Over the winter, at every one of their four meetings, the number of attendees doubled.  Now, at 389 people strong and counting, IWR has been deluged with offers of support, services and volunteers.

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Ithacans have a long and storied history of welcoming refugees. From Burma, Chile, Egypt, Cambodia and Iraq; asylum seekers have all settled here and become integral to a diverse community.  

More than 30 local businesses were founded and are run by refugees, according to data from Catholic Charities of Tompkins and Tioga. With the current Syrian crisis in mind, the city’s Common Council unanimously voted in June to declare Ithaca a welcoming community for all refugees.

Humble beginnings

David Rhodes, Julie Petrie, Kirianne Weaver Riehl, Eric Clay and Walaa Maharem-Horan met at a meeting in the basement of the First Presbyterian Church in December. It was shortly after Mayor Myrick pledged to make Ithaca a city that would welcome refugees.

Later in the Voice’s Road to Refuge series: addressing Ithacans’ concerns and questions about a welcome refugee program

“When people, in response [to Mayor Myrick], asked, ‘How can I help?’ There wasn’t really a place for them to go,” says Weaver Riehl. So she and the others decided they could step in.

Kirianne Weaver Riehl Photo by Benjamin Torrey/The Ithaca Voice

“Right from that very first meeting there was this amazing balance of people from all different walks of life,” says Weaver Riehl. “There wasn’t a sense of a dominant persuasion that people brought into the room. It was so diverse.”

Says Petrie: “I think we were really ambitious that first meeting – we divided up into the four sub-committees.  What would we need if we were going to resettle people here in Ithaca?  We would need to find housing; employment; basic home goods. We would need to do some fundraising.”

The IWR mission is to help refugees who are placed in Ithaca find homes, jobs and otherwise acclimate to their new home. The members believe that Ithaca has the resources and capacity to take in about 50 refugees.

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Despite some concerns within the community voiced after Mayor Myrick announced his plans to welcome refugees – namely about safety measures and the pressures on Ithaca’s housing market – by April the IWR founders were inundated with volunteers and offers of services and goods. They said the response from community members was overwhelmingly positive. “We put out 90 chairs at one meeting and people were still standing,” says Weaver Riehl.

The Ithaca Voice sat down with the members of IWR to talk about their work:

A call to alms – Rev. Kirianne Weaver Riehl

Weaver Riehl has no history of work with refugees, or the aftermath of war, but as the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Ithaca she was compelled to combine local outreach with an international perspective.

“I remember listening to stories of the bombings of homes [in Syria] back in 2011 and thinking this is one of those international issues that as a bystander, as a civilian, you watch from a distance and wish you could do something.

“I remember this one man saying, ‘We’re dying here and we’re telling you our stories. Isn’t anybody listening?’ People were putting their lives on the line, telling stories to journalists in these bombed-out landscapes and they were begging the international community to do something.

“That’s a horrific, desperate plea to read. It became this pain of the heart [for me] that somebody needs you and you can’t do anything. Compassion is given to us as a gift. If it catches you, if it grabs you, then that’s a call,” she says.

“Refugees are humans in crisis. We don’t really know what we’re doing, but neither do they. It’s new to all of us. They’ve never been refugees before.”

Practicing what he teaches  – David Rhodes

Rhodes teaches Social Studies to 8th grade school children at the Alternative School for Math and Science in Corning. Part of teaching social responsibility, he says, involves pursuing community work himself. It’s a kind of “practice what you teach” approach to his students, in which he leads by example.  This was his motivation to start working with IWR.

David Rhodes Photo by Benjamin Torrey/ The Ithaca Voice

“I was thinking through with students what it means to ‘stand up’ in different contexts. What does it mean to be engaged with issues of social justice? The question is: What is our obligation in this world and how can we see beyond the us-and-them dichotomies?  I’m teaching that every day. Part of that teaching it is to then have that awareness and think about how to engage myself.”

“The students and I talk about the global humanitarian crisis. I can imagine, years down the road, people asking, ‘What did you do during that crisis? How did you engage?’ For me what resonates is the idea of building bridges in the community around a very common goal.”

Rhodes also points to the notion – one that seems to connect all five founders – that refugees are simply “humans in crisis,” nothing more complicated than that. Working with refugees has, he says, “raised my awareness of marginalized communities – communities that are sometimes hidden from view –  and what it means to create a world that’s more fair.”

“We have the potential and the ability to offer opportunities and a welcoming community. Let’s do it. Who’s with us?”

A family history of refugee work  – Julie Petrie

Petrie has been working with refugees one way or another since she was 13 years-old. Growing up in Florida, where her mother was a social worker, she was involved with a local Lao, Cambodian and Vietnamese refugee community.  

It was a priest who drew her mother’s attention to the needs within that group, and Petrie became a – very young – social worker’s assistant.  She would help raise funds, and attend home visits with her mother.  She also worked on a preschool program that helped refugee children navigate the American education system.

Julie Petrie Photo by Benjamin Torrey/ The Ithaca Voice

“It was the family’s activity,” she says. “Everybody got involved. My grandfather was the driver for the van to the preschool. My dad was helping too. Everybody was involved in some way.”

As a family they sponsored two Lao refugee families.  It is fair to say refugee work was ingrained in the family culture, says Petrie.

After graduate school, Petrie worked with international development programs focusing on disaster response in India, Thailand and Indonesia following the 2004 tsunami. She collaborated with programs focused on food security and health in the refugee camps on the Thai border.  Now, she works for Episcopal Migration Ministries, one of nine national resettlement agencies.

“IWR is trying to just be an extension of the community: It is certainly not a professional organization with paid staff. We are all volunteers. And that’s what differentiates us from other groups.”

40 years of interfaith community outreach – Rev. Eric Clay

Rev. Eric Clay Photo by Benjamin Torrey/The Ithaca Voice

After graduating from Cornell, Clay went to seminary school to become a pastor, beginning a long career focused on interfaith communication and understanding. While studying, he lived in an apartment building in the Bronx that was owned by Albanian Muslims.

In the entryway of the building, the 72 apartments put up symbols that represented all the religions being practiced:  Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism. There were 18 different first languages spoken in that apartment building, says Clay.

“Being a pastor allows you entry into all dimensions of people’s lives”, says Clay. When he first started meeting with the other IWR members, he sent out emails to 30 or 40 members of the Muslim community; to Jewish friends and colleagues, and to Evangelical Christians.

“In any organic community effort you need to have enough connections so that when things get crazy, people can help each other out and be accountable.”

After Clay’s requests for help, volunteers from all faiths began stockpiling donated home goods, and have now filled two huge storage facilities that have been donated. 

“To understand what people’s needs are, that has to come from a personal connection,” he says. “It’s not a piece of paper where you just check off boxes. It’s creating the space, building trust, building relationships, understanding the complexity of people. Over time I think we’ll understand more and more how to do that.”

An eye on the future and the next generation – Walaa Maharem-Horan

“I would love to see the success of the families that have come here and already done it; to see the struggles that they’ve had to endure, with a mind to those who are yet to come.” says Maharem-Horan, pointing to Ithaca’s history of embracing refugees.

“We should also point out the fact that our volunteers are not just adults. Some of the arts and crafts are made by 14 year-olds who heard about their parents being involved and wanted to be involved too.”

Walaa Maharem-Horan Photo by Benjamin Torrey/The Ithaca Voice

Recently, a senior from Ithaca High School e-mailed Maharem-Horan saying “Hey, I’m holding a fundraiser for you guys.” He hosted a comedy night, as part of a school project, and all proceeds – $500 – went to the IWR.

“I think this is a generational thing. The first people to stop at our Ithaca Fest table were two 19 year-old kids from Corning who were so excited. ‘What can we do in Corning to help?’ they asked. They’re getting ready to go to college and want to be involved,” says Maharem-Horan.

“This is a crisis that’s going to need the next generation to be just as compassionate as the people who are helping now.”

Melissa Whitworth

Melissa Whitworth is a freelance journalist, specializing in features and profile interviews. Email her at or click on the icons in the top right for more.