Hopeprint gives refugees a fighting chance

Sean Haley's Hopeprint provides Syracuse refugees English classes, job training and tutoring.

When Sean Haley decided to enroll at SUNY Upstate Medical University in 2010, he could have moved anywhere. Haley could have chosen a location close to the school’s campus on East Adams Street. Or he could have returned to his hometown of Manlius and commuted from there. But Haley decided to make his home on Syracuse’s Northside, the heart of the city’s refugee community. Moments like the one Haley experienced last summer remind him that he made the right decision.

Photo: Katy Beals

“Nobody was doing anything to help one another. I just remember kind of thinking, ‘What on earth is happening here?’”
-Sean Haley

Haley frequently helps out his refugee neighbors, and on that summer day, he was mowing a neighbor’s yard when he was approached by two young boys, seven and eight years old.

“They say, ‘What about our yard? No one’s ever mowed our yard,’” Haley said. So, being the good neighbor that he is, Haley agreed to help once he was finished. What he saw was demoralizing.

Rocks and empty beer bottles lay scattered amongst the knee-high grass. Instead of flowers, shingles from the roof decorated the yard. But Haley was determined. He got down with the boys on his hands and knees and methodically picked through the debris. Once the yard was cleaned and mowed, the boys rejoiced.

“There was this childish joy that should exist in their lives all the time, but in our neighborhood it’s kind of fleeting because of tough family situations or absent parents,” Haley said.

According to a report published last year by the Onondaga Citizens League, over 7,200 refugees resettled in Syracuse over the past 12 years. The majority of them end up in Northside. That’s where Haley comes in.

Refugees face many challenges adjusting to life in the U.S. They come to Syracuse to escape poverty and political upheaval, but in order for them to improve their lives, it is critical that refugees learn English and receive training to land a stable job. Just as importantly, refugee children must be able to receive a quality education to set them on the path to college. These are the areas Haley hoped to address when he helped establish Hopeprint, a nonprofit dedicated to helping refugees, in 2010.

'Syracuse is in a far better existence than when Sean found it'

Operating out of two homes – including Haley’s – in the Northside, Hopeprint offers tutoring, English lessons and job training for Syracuse’s refugees and their children. During the school year, about 100 refugees per week participate in Hopeprint programs, which include weekly community dinners.

“Our real goal is to see the city of Syracuse be revitalized,” Haley said. “We’re starting on the Northside.”

Since he graduated from Syracuse University in 2010, Haley, 25, has spent most of his life trying to improve the lives of others. He’s a busy man, but whatever he’s doing – studying at Upstate in a dual M.D./master’s of public health program, working as the vice-chair of Hopeprint or simply mowing a neighbor’s yard – Haley is helping people.

“If you go to any high school or college graduation, the commencement speech is a lot of words about making the world a better place,” said Alex Jorgensen, Haley’s close friend. “A lot of times, those words fall flat, but in Sean, you think this is really possible. He’s grown up in Syracuse and Syracuse is in a far better existence than when Sean found it.”

Haley made the decision to become a doctor in seventh grade after two of his grandparents died of cancer. People are important to Haley, and becoming a doctor offered him the chance to establish relationships with the patients he helps.

“Whenever I go out in public with Sean, I feel like he is the mayor of Syracuse,” said Mary Haley, Sean’s sister. “There is not a place he can go without seeing someone that he knows from some aspect of his life. And he always makes the time to stop and talk to them.”

Haley was involved in community service growing up, and his mom, Laura, worked in nonprofit finances. But it wasn’t until he reached Fayetteville-Manlius High School that he started participating in Young Life, a Christian mentorship program. Haley began as a mentee in high school, and once he transferred to SU after a semester at Providence College, he took over as Young Life’s volunteer leader at F-M.

Young Life was far more than a mentorship program for Haley, though. It’s where he formed the two most important relationships of his life: with his wife, Heidi, and with Jesus Christ. Though Haley was raised Catholic, he said that Young Life made his faith a driving force in his life.

“You can’t separate Sean’s willingness to help people from the Christian view of the gospel,” said Jorgensen, who worked with Haley in Young Life. “His drive for service, whether it’s serving patients, refugees or high school students, is all out of the overflow of his faith in Jesus Christ.”

Haley also met Heidi, then a student at nearby Cazenovia High School. But it was not until 2011, when Heidi interned at Haley’s next big project – Hopeprint – that the two began dating.

“As I worked for Sean and Nicole, I was able to see the passion they both had for the refugees, helping them and helping the community,” Heidi Haley said. “Whether it is caring for those involved in Young Life, his fellow medical student peers, or a small orphan in Thailand whose past involved being sold into sex trafficking, Sean quickly finds himself in situations where he is passionately caring for and loving those around him.”

Haley lends a hand

After working at a health clinic during a service trip to El Salvador in his senior year at SU, Haley saw the need for public health interventions across the globe. Haley noticed parallels between the people he helped in El Salvador and Syracuse’s refugee community, and met Nicole Watts one day later that year while helping move a couch into a refugee home.

Watts mentioned that she had an idea to help refugees deal with the social issues of adjusting to a new country. Haley was sold, and from there, they established Hopeprint.

Since then, Haley has touched hundreds of lives, including that of Muheyidin Mohammed, a 41-year-old father of four who arrived in Syracuse from Somalia in 2009. Through Hopeprint, Haley has helped tutor Mohammed in English and gave him tips on opening his restaurant, African International.

“He’s smart,” Mohammed said. “He teaches me. If I need something else I have no idea, I ask him sometimes. He supports my business and brings me customers.”

Haley will graduate from Upstate in 2015, and though he wants to work with urban, underprivileged patients, he doesn’t know where his medical residency will take him. But right now, he’s fine with his role as one of the bedrocks of the refugee community.

Around Christmas in 2012, Haley arrived home to a snowstorm, a foreign concept to many of his neighbors.

“There were six different cars trying to spin their wheels to get out of their driveways,” Haley said. “Nobody was doing anything to help one another. I just remember kind of thinking, ‘What on earth is happening here?’”

First, Haley approached a Congolese man who was struggling to get his Fiat out of the driveway and started shoveling him out. A couple of men from Nepal noticed Haley and helped finish the job. Following Haley’s lead, more people joined in until everyone was shoveled out.

“We had people from Burma, Nepal, Congo, African-Americans and white people in this shoveling troupe,” Haley said. “I’ll never forget it because I have this feeling that if I didn’t stop, everyone would have just kept spinning their tires separately. Instead I got to be part of this multicultural union and watch people rally together and help each other out. It’s small things like that that make me say, this is why we’re part of the neighborhood.”

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