After the Islamic State group (ISIS/ISIL) announced it was responsible for the Paris attacks in November and false allegations that one attacker may have been a Syrian refugee, France took swift action to close its borders to all refugees. The country has since reopened its borders and is planning to build a refugee camp. But the negative impact of the isolationist, anti-refugee rhetoric that followed in Europe continues to spread beyond its borders.
In the United States, calls to turn away Syrian refugees have only grown louder. Despite not having the authority to do so, more than 31 governors want to block refugee resettlement in their states. But governors do have the authority to deny social assistance to refugees, making it much harder for them to get on their feet and start anew. For example, the governor of Indiana ordered state agencies to stop all assistance to Syrian refugees.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal tweeted that he has done the same, “I just signed an Executive Order instructing state agencies to take all available steps to stop the relocation of Syrian refugees to LA.”
Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said that, if elected, he’d send them all back home. Jeb Bush suggested allowing in only Christian Syrians. Other politicians and leaders have offered similar opinions about the need to keep Syrian refugees out of the country for security reasons. No doubt, presidential candidates pandering to their conservative bases have exaggerated anti-immigration fear mongering. But vying for votes and higher poll numbers by spreading fear is just wrong.
Words and actions like these in effect label all Syrian refugees as potential ISIS terrorists. The speed at which Syrian refugees morphed from hapless victims of war to feared foreign victimizer is unnerving. Within a week of the Paris attacks, refugees found themselves on the international stage defending their status as refugees.
Perhaps one of the most poignant images of this transformation came in the form of a xenophobic cartoon by the French Charlie Hebdo magazine, which itself was the target of ISIS attacks a year ago that killed 12 people. The cartoon, titled “Migrants” shows a small image of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian refugee whose body washed ashore a Turkish beach in September. “What would have happened to little Aylan if he grew up?” the cartoon asks. The answer, “A (butt) groper of women in Germany.” Next to the smaller image is that of foreign-looking men running after obviously frightened women, a reference to the New Year’s Eve sexual assaults of women in Germany by foreigners.
However, Syrian refugees are neither destined to be a public nuisance, as the cartoon portends, nor international terrorists, as many conservative political leaders and activists assert. They are fleeing the same ISIS that has targeted France, Lebanon, Iraq and other places. Instead of a knee-jerk condemnation of all based on the unconfirmed actions of a few, America should welcome these victims of war. We already have a strict vetting process and security checks for all who seek to take refuge upon our shores. We shouldn’t let fear stop us from our American duty.
The Syrian refugee crisis has been dubbed the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. There are 6.6 million displaced people inside Syria and nearly 4.6 million refugees outside trying to rebuild their lives from nothing. Neighboring countries have absorbed most and Europe has been dealing with a huge influx. With no signs of the Syrian conflict ending, it is increasingly important that the United States keep its commitment to bring in more Syrian refugees, no matter who occupies the White House in 2017.
In September, President Barack Obama pledged to admit 10,000 refugees during fiscal 2016 after accepting some 1,500 in the past four years combined.
According to a Quinnipiac poll in September, 53% of Americans don’t want the country to admit Syrian refugees, citing the cost of resettlement and potential security risks despite an already vigorous vetting process and security checks. A Pew Research Center survey indicates that 39% of Americans say Middle Eastern immigrants have negatively affected American society.
But before the tragic Paris attacks and alleged ISIS-inspired San Bernardino mass shooting by a non-refugee Muslim couple (one of whom was a legal immigrant) nearly a month later, supporters for Syrian refugee resettlement in America were clamoring to bring in this desperate population. For example, 14 senators urged Obama in May to bring more refugees.
“As the Syrian conflict enters its 5th year with no end in sight, we respectfully request that your Administration take action to significantly increase the number of Syrian refugees who are resettled in the United States. Our nation’s founders came to our shores to escape religious persecution and the United States has a long tradition of providing safe haven to refugees. The United States traditionally accepts at least 50 percent of resettlement cases from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). However, we have accepted only approximately 700 refugees since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, an unacceptably low number.
“While the United States is the largest donor of humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees, we must also dramatically increase the number of Syrian refugees that we accept for resettlement.”
Mayors of 18 cities said in September that they would accept Syrian refugees.
“As the mayors of cities across the country, we see first-hand the myriad ways in which immigrants and refugees make our communities stronger economically, socially and culturally. We will welcome the Syrian families to make homes and new lives in our cities.”
David Laitin and Marc Jahr wrote a New York Times op-ed in May calling for resettling Syrians in bankrupt Detroit.
“Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan, a Republican, has already laid the groundwork. In January 2014 he called for an infusion of 50,000 immigrants as part of a program to revitalize Detroit, and signed an executive order creating the Michigan Office for New Americans.
“Syrian refugees would be an ideal community to realize this goal, as Arab-Americans are already a vibrant and successful presence in the Detroit metropolitan area.”
All these people viewed Syrian newcomers as adding to their cities’ populations and revitalizing their economies. Syrian refugees were welcomed as victims of war and also a source of optimistic hope, not only for the refugees themselves but also for the communities that would be accepting them.
A California Welcome
The California city of Anaheim, which has one of the largest populations of Middle Eastern refugees with a neighborhood dubbed Little Arabia, passed a resolution asking Obama to “increase the number of Syrian refugees allowed into the United States of America.”
“The Anaheim City Council urges the President and the United States Congress to direct the Department of Health and Human Services to collaborate more directly with refugee-serving organizations in strengthening the health and human service ‘safety net’ for Middle Eastern asylum-seekers, asylees, and new Americans, particularly in Southern California.”
The best place for refugees may be the Golden State, given its history of embracing refugees and the diverse immigrant population that already resides there. (In full disclosure, I am a resident of the state and a Syrian American.) California has a long history of resettling asylum-seekers, having accepted more than 700,000 in the past 40 years. In 2012, it received $50 million to resettle nearly 15,000 refugees, almost a quarter of all refugees coming into the country. That’s a drop in the bucket of the $4.5 billion in U.S. aid to Syrian refugees abroad since 2011.
ACCESS California Services, a nonprofit aimed at empowering underserved Arab and Muslim communities, uses private and public funds to help many Syrian refugees.
“They are working, contributing [residents]. They are paying taxes and they are hard-working people,” says Nahla Kayali, executive director of ACCESS, of the Syrian refugees coming to California
I have already seen the positive impact that these newcomers are making near where I live. Some have opened Middle Eastern restaurants and others are teaching Arabic as a second language. Meanwhile, local Arab and Muslim communities continue to actively support new families by offering generous donations of food, money, clothing, furniture and services.
Kayali says many Syrian refugees choose to come to California primarily because it has the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the nation, with somewhere between 300,000 and 800,000 people. And, by some estimates, the largest Syrian-American population in the nation resides in California. When resettlement agencies decide where to place refugees, they most often consider the existing immigrant populations in the area and support services available to them.
Kayali says the second reason Syrians choose California is the climate; the weather is similar to Syria’s.
“The third [reason] is they read about it. Now, everything is on Google and they read about how it has the highest concentration of different immigrant communities,” Kayali says. “So they feel like, ‘Oh we are going to be like others there.’ ”
After the Paris attacks, California Governor Jerry Brown pledged to continue to welcome refugees to his state. “I intend to work closely with the President so that he can both uphold America’s traditional role as a place of asylum, but also ensure that anyone seeking refuge in America is fully vetted in a sophisticated and utterly reliable way. You can be sure that we will do everything in our power to protect the people of our state.”
Despite the potential for more asylum-seekers resettling in this West Coast state, refugee life in America isn’t easy. Government support runs out in a matter of months and refugees must survive on their own, with only the help of good Samaritans.
In October, a couple of Facebook employees and northern California residents turned to GoFundMe.com to help raise $17,000 for three Syrian refugee families:
“Over the past few months, three Syrian refugee families were placed in the Bay Area. They came through the IRC (International Rescue Committee) and are facing multiple challenges as they set up their new lives here in the Bay Area. The IRC assistance covered their expenses for the last few months but has now stopped and the families are left figuring things out on their own and rely heavily on donations. Sustaining jobs has been a major struggle since their English is limited and they’re still getting used to everything.”
Starting Over From Nothing
Selma, a single woman in her thirties, came from a tight-knit middle-class family in Damascus and had a promising career as an editor. In 2013, she witnessed a chemical attack in her city and had to leave Syria to save her life. By 2014, she moved to Orange County, California alone, her family still in Damascus. She had to start anew with nothing.
“This country gave me a chance to live. I respect this opportunity,” she tells me.
Selma found a welcoming Arab community when she arrived, but had to spend many months sleeping on people’s couches as she waited for her background checks, asylum papers and work permits to be processed.
Nearly two years later, life has gotten a little easier in her new country she calls home. She is independent and renting an apartment, is an administrative assistant at a medical practice and owns a car.
But Selma still has sleepless nights and constantly worries about her parents in Syria, whom she talks to via Facebook and Skype. She dreams about returning to her homeland one day, to a country at peace, not at war.
The American Way
We Americans must lead better by demonstrating our humanity and offering a safe haven for vulnerable refugees. Our strict vetting process and security checks continue to be the best defense against potential security threats, particularly from ISIS.
Obama rightly refused to back away from his promise to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees, rejecting the notion of a “religious test” for asylum seekers and reminding the world about the primary cause of this crisis.
“Many of these refugees are victims of terrorism themselves,” Obama said in Turkey in November. “Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values.”
The president and the first lady ought to be applauded for inviting a Syrian refugee, Refaai Hamo, to his final State of the Union address in January in a show of support for refugees. The immigration of refugees to the United States must be viewed from a wider angle, one with the understanding that America’s long history of accepting the “tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free” cannot just end on account of disparate international events or the existence of terror organizations. America, its democracy, pluralism and foundational values are stronger than any security threat, wherever it may occur, or any terrorist group, wherever it is based.
When I think of Syrian refugees coming to America, I don’t think of ISIS. I think of Selma and her long, lonely struggle to escape the horrors of war and start a new life in the land of the free. “When I came here, people told me, ‘You’ll never make it. You will be homeless. You will never make it’,” she says.
“I said no. I’ve always heard that this is the land of opportunity. I am not here to beg or to take anything from anyone,” Selma says. “I try to decorate my apartment with things that remind me of the challenges I’ve had to overcome … and that show, ‘Selma, you made it!’ ”
This article appears in the Winter 2015/2016 print issue of The Islamic Monthly.
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