Syracuse City School District’s Refugee Assistance Program Provides More Than Just Education SCSD's Refugee Program Provides More than Just Education

Free ESL classes are just one form of support offered to refugees.

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC News) – While several cities across the United States are figuring out ways to accommodate large volumes of incoming migrants, Syracuse is one city that already has a program in place for its refugees. John Iorio, the Syracuse City School District’s adult education director, says the program is not only crucial but also individualized.

“Refugees and immigrants make up the fastest-growing population in New York State,” Iorio said. “Every person is different, every situation is different, and we just meet them where they’re at.”

The Syracuse City School District’s Refugee Aid Program (RAP) not only offers English as a Second Language (ESL) classes but is also the largest G.E.D. program outside of New York City – and that includes all five boroughs combined. Iorio says these programs are not only free but are also being worked on by the school district to include more free opportunities for both youth and adults.

“They’re not charged for anything,” Iorio confirmed. “Not to come in here, not for the career and technical aid that we offer. They’re not charged for field trips and opportunities… this was, at least last year, the poorest city center in the United States. So how do you charge people that are already disadvantaged?”

One of the disadvantages the program helps with is overcoming language barriers. Iorio said roughly 60% of the refugees and immigrants that utilize services through the SCSD barely speak English, if any at all.

When Jose Moreno Noriega and his wife, Olga, immigrated to the United States from Cuba 13 years ago, neither of them spoke very much English. Despite Olga’s career as a dental doctor in Cuba, this language barrier made finding work incredibly difficult. With two sons and grandchildren in the Syracuse area, the couple was motivated to utilize the SCSD’s ESL education program.

“Here, I learned to read and write, but I want to improve to communicate with others – it’s fundamental,” Moreno Noriega said.

Astrid Choromanska teaches Jose’s class and is an immigrant herself. She immigrated to the United States when she was 11 years old and took ESL classes to learn English. While she started with the SCSD’s programming in 2003 and has spent time working with children in the past, she’s now back working with the program’s adults. Choromanska noted that while ESL is currently being taught in every single building of the city school district, it’s not always a refugee’s priority.

“[Refugees] say English is not number one,” Choromanska said. “Often, number one is a job to support family, health, medical care, and then getting some English.”

That extended need is why the program is focused on providing more than just education. While the SCSD does provides ESL and G.E.D. classes, the school district also provides support services.

“The first thing we’re doing is trying to find them housing and trying to make sure that they have government services so they have food, heat, and electric,” Iorio said. “We’re trying to make sure we connect them to education – both parents and kids – so that they are able to navigate and grow in a new environment.”

Iorio also mentioned that mental health services are often needed, especially for those migrating to Syracuse from homes affected by conflict and wars. He said it is the school district’s job not only to get refugees these services, but also a path afterwards.

“We want to make sure we get them into employment, career and technical education, and into higher education,” Iorio said. “So, we always tell them, you’re going to get your G.E.D., but what’s the next step?”

Iorio says for him, this work is the dream job.

“There’s a lot to do, there’s a lot of people to support, and they want to do well,” Iorio said. “That’s something that I’m so proud of; these adults want to be successful, and I love what my staff does to make sure they’re happy and learning.”

More information on the Refugee Aid Program can be found on the SCSD website.

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