ITHACA, N.Y. – A family fleeing violence in Angola will make a new home in Ithaca this week after a long journey from their home country in Southern Africa to South America, an ICE detention facility in Texas and an Austin shelter.

The family of six is seeking asylum in the U.S., a process that began when they turned themselves in to Customs and Border Protection agents at the southern border and requested to present their case in immigration court. While their application for asylum is pending, Catholic Charities and Ithaca Welcomes Refugees will marshal volunteers and resources to support the family and welcome them to the Ithaca community.

Laurie Konwinski, deputy director and coordinator of justice and peace ministries at Catholic Charities of Tompkins County, said Ithaca has the capacity and the responsibility to welcome families seeking safety.

“If not Ithaca, then where?” she said. “If we can’t welcome one family, when so many people feel this government’s policies on this run counter to their beliefs, their understanding of what America is about, if we’re standing up in opposition to the policies, then we have to show some kind of action on the ground. What do we do when actually presented with supporting someone?”

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Catholic Charities established a refugee resettlement program in Tompkins County in 2017. However, the Trump Administration reduced the number of refugees allowed into the country in 2019 to its lowest level since 1980, with a 30,000 person cap. As a result, the program is not currently processing any refugee resettlement cases.

Unlike refugees, who are vetted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees before arriving in the U.S., asylum seekers are not eligible for government benefits or employment when they arrive. The family arriving in Ithaca will therefore be unable to work and unable to receive Section 8 housing or SNAP food assistance until their asylum application is processed.

“That’s why this is such a community effort,” Konwinski said. “Although they can apply for a work permit, until they can legally work, and even afterwards for a while we assume, they’re going to need some help.”

Related: Faith leaders call for compassionate immigration policy with march downtown

Konwinski said she reached out to Ithaca Welcomes Refugees immediately after getting a request for help from the Austin shelter where the family has been staying. IWR worked to sign up teams of volunteers to help meet the family’s needs.

“This is what we’ve been gearing up for,” said Julie Petrie, a board member and programs coordinator at IWR. “We have the capacity to support this family and we’re really excited that this family has the opportunity to come to Ithaca.”

The two organizations have secured housing for the family, with ample space for the two parents and four kids, Petrie said. The home is furnished and set up with food, clothes, and toys.

IWR volunteers are ready to drive the family to appointments and serve as Portuguese interpreters, to bring over food and host play dates, and to provide general support while the family gets oriented to life in Ithaca.

Catholic Charities will line up legal assistance, English classes, school enrollment and medical care, as well as providing help with job placement once work permissions are in place.

The process of applying for asylum can be long and difficult. The family’s case will likely be heard in Batavia or Buffalo, Konwinski said, and she estimated it could be 18 to 24 months before an initial decision is rendered. After that, there may be an additional appeals process, and the family will need to apply for Green Card status to stay in the U.S. legally as permanent residents.

Whatever happens in the long term, Konwinski and Petrie said they are excited to welcome the family and heartened by the outpouring of support from the community. Those interested in volunteering can learn more here.

Update (10 a.m. March 28) – Thanks to an outpouring of community support, all of IWR’s general volunteer needs are currently met. They are still looking for Portuguese speakers who can help as interpreters, though.

Featured image provided by IWR Facebook page. 

Devon Magliozzi is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at or 607-391-0328.