BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — In an all-American city that has seen better days, they are true strangers from lands as far apart as Laos, Mexico, Somalia and the former Soviet republics.
The American Civic Association was the place they turned to for help navigating their journey. But their bridge to a better life is now a monument of immigrant sorrow, the site of a shooting rampage that killed 14 people, including the gunman.
Perhaps most implausible of all is that the killer was one of their own — as well as a son of one of their own. The gunman's father was known for his own work with immigrants in the area.
"That this tragedy should have happened in our community, to our friends who only wanted to advance their knowledge and love of America, is almost unbearable," the association's board president, Angela Leach, said Saturday.
The volunteer-based civic group, a member agency of the United Way of Broome County, was founded in 1939 by 11 immigrants. It helps roughly 60 to 100 people a day with finding housing, food, clothing, medical care and jobs, as well as offering English classes, interpreters, personal counseling and more.
"It's like having a mini-United Nations in your community," said Mark Kachadourian, a Binghamton attorney who has been on the association board since 2001. He became involved with the group after it helped his wife, a Canadian, get U.S. citizenship.
Some victims of Friday's shooting left violent homelands only to be slain in a quiet, industrial city at the confluence of the Susquehanna and Chenango rivers.
Layla Khalil, an Iraqi woman in her 50s, came to the United States after surviving three car bombings in Iraq, said Imam Kasim Kopuz, leader of the Islamic Organization of the Southern Tier.
"To think that would happen here," Kopuz said.
She had three children, including a son who is a doctoral student at the Sorbonne in Paris, a daughter who is a Fulbright scholar at Binghamton University and a son in high school.
The daughter declined an interview because she was planning her mother's funeral.
Ty Tran, 37, visited the community center Friday morning with his wife and a friend, My Nguyen, who had lost his greencard and needed a new picture. They were charged $8 for a snapshot and walked out the front door at 10:20 a.m. — about 10 minutes before the shooting began.
"We were very lucky. If we stay, then we die," said Tran, a cable-manufacturing factory worker who has periodically used the center as a resource since emigrating from Vietnam in 1990.
The gunman's father, Henry Voong, was well known in the Binghamton area through his work years ago at the now-defunct World Relief Organization, helping recent arrivals. He would hook people up with a doctor, help them get on food stamps.
"Everyone, when they come to America, he's the one who helps," Tran said.
Police Chief Joseph Zikuski said the actions of the gunman, Jiverly Wong, 41, an ethnic Chinese who arrived from Vietnam in the early 1990s, should have been no surprise to the man's family. He believed people he knew were making fun of him for his poor English-language skills, Zikuski said.
Binghamton has always been a lure for immigrants. A century ago, Slavs, Italians and other European immigrants disembarking at Ellis Island would immediately ask where the Endicott-Johnson shoe company was. Local lore chronicles immigrants showing up in the city and saying, "Which way E-J?"
More than 7,100 immigrants, most of them Asians, have settled in Binghamton since 2005, according to city statistics. They are a cosmopolitan mix of Kurds, Chinese, Filipinos, Africans, Iraqis — but only a fraction of the city's predominantly white population of 43,000.
Huong Holmes, 59, who came to the U.S. about 30 years ago as a boat person from Vietnam, said the center gave her a firm footing in America.
"They set up my apartment, they collected the furniture, they gave me some money," said Holmes, a resident of nearby Endicott, who for years has volunteered as a translator at the center and is now working on her doctorate of ministry. "I thank the American Civic Association a lot. That's why I'm doing my best to help all the other people."
The victims were killed as they were bettering themselves, many of them preparing to become citizens.
Zikuski said Saturday that police have had calls from nine countries. He doesn't know where the victims will be buried.
The center is a stepping stone for recent arrivals, many of them with poor or nonexistent English-speaking skills. Dolores Yigal, a recent touchdown from the Philippines who died in the rampage, was learning English there as she dreamed of getting a job working with children, said her husband, Omri Yigal.
"She wanted to learn English so she could find work," he said.
Police arrived at Omri Yigal's house on Saturday night to tell him his wife was among the dead.
"They said she probably went quickly so she didn't suffer, I pray," he said in a shaky voice.
Lubomyr Zobniw was still waiting Saturday to hear information about his wife, Maria, who came to the U.S. from Ukraine as a child and was a part-time caseworker at the Civic Association.
Zobniw said his wife was supposed to be off Friday but was called in.
"when your parents go away, it's one thing, but for someone who wants to help the world ..." he said, trailing off.
"I hope everything is OK, but now ... I'm still hoping for a miracle or something," he said.
The center is a haven for many in a busy new country they were still getting used to. Xiurong Yue, an accountant in China, is learning English there as she worked as a motel housekeeper, said John Gavazzi, her husband. She was not at the center at the time of the shooting.
"To her, this is her connection," he said, "she has friends in the class."
The Red Cross' Cynthia Gordineer said relief efforts have been complicated because families of victims speak about a half-dozen languages, and many have different customs that have to be respected.
"None of us have ever faced this," she said. "We're trying to find our way around a situation we've never faced."