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Albany Refugees And Immigrants Speak With Congressman

Congressman Paul Tonko and RISSE Operations Director Francis Sengabo
Lucas Willard
Congressman Paul Tonko and RISSE Operations Director Francis Sengabo

Volunteers and staff at an Albany organization that provides assistance to refugees and immigrants are struggling to keep up with the demand for services. Today, the organization got a visit from their member of Congress, Democrat Paul Tonko.

What started as a group of concerned members of Albany’s Emmaus Methodist Church in 2007, RISSE is a non-profit that serves refugee and immigrant families from more than 20 nations.

RISSE is the only organization in the city that provides full-time English language classes for adults. It also offers an afterschool program and a summer program for kids. 

Congressman Paul Tonko introduced himself to a group of English-language learners on Wednesday morning. The Democrat from the 20th District said he is dedicated to working “especially hard” on protecting those escaping danger and seeking refuge in the U.S.

“Any country needs border control, but I think we need to institute those controls, we need to uphold the law all while respecting our values to a nation,” said Tonko.

Some in the class had questions for Tonko. The Congressman was asked multiple times about how he can help reunite families.

A woman named Hosnia, with tears in her eyes, asked how the Congressman could help bring children to the U.S. from Baghdad.

“Please help me to bring them to quickly, because my children are in a big danger,”  asked Hosnia.

Tonko said he would fight for to preserve the United States’ family reunification policies, which Republican President Donald Trump has sought to end.

“The president has chosen to call it ‘chain migration,’ which I find objectionable. I think it’s an insult. So, family reunification, where you can enable family members, again by going through the process, should be honored,” said Tonko.

Muzhda, who declined to give her last name, is a student who emigrated from Afghanistan and attends high school through the Albany International Center at the Albany City School District. She asked about pursuing higher education.

“I am gradate to high school after two years. How will my family pay money, pay for college,” asked Muzhda.

Tonko responded by saying the cost of college is a concern for everybody right now, but asked Muzhda to contact his office.

“We will see. There may be some foundations that can find too, that will assist,” said Tonko.

RISSE currently serves more than 200 refugee and immigrant families in the Albany area. The organization is staffed largely by volunteers and part-time instructors.

Over the last two years, Volunteer Coordinator Theresa Alexander said there’s been an outpouring of support from local people ready to volunteer.

“So many people came wanting to volunteer explicitly, told me, because of the political climate,” said Alexander.

The program has grown over the years but needs resources.

RISSE has only two full-time employees, Executive Director Rifat Filkins and Operations Director Francis Sengabo.

Sengabo, who arrived in Albany as a refugee in 2007, helped form the organization that would become RISSE. He now registers students, provides testing, organizes the after-school program, and a host of other things.

“But I’m one person. Our executive director is overwhelmed too. Because she is doing financial issue, grant, and we have only two full-time employees, Rifat and I. So, which means, that’s one. And another issue: the need.  It’s a lot.”

Speaking to the students, Tonko told the English-language learners that they have his support.

“So you reached my heart. And I will put forth my energy to make a difference,” said Tonko.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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