Defending an American Tradition, Communities Welcome Syrian Refugees

Syrian refugee Ahmad Alkhalaf plays soccer with friends in Sharon, Massachusetts, on December 10, 2016.

In the coming days, President Donald Trump is expected to announce a sweeping executive order blocking the United States from admitting refugees from Syria, putting an extended halt on the entire U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, and drastically reducing the refugee admissions target for FY 2017 from 110,000 to 50,000, the lowest figure since the Refugee Act of 1980. In doing so, President Trump will be going against an age-old American tradition of welcoming the most-vulnerable people during a global refugee crisis. Instead, he will be embracing the historic roots of the “America First” cry—a slogan he used during his campaign and made a signature piece of his inaugural address—that helped delay America’s response to refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. The U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees, or UNHCR, reports that there are an unprecedented 65.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, nearly 5 million of whom are Syrian refugees.

Since 2014, the United States has welcomed more than 18,300 Syrian refugees. In total, 238,000 refugees from countries including Burma, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, and Bhutan have come to the United States during this period. Despite pockets of anti-refugee sentiment—much of it directed at Syrian refugees—efforts to ease the integration of these newcomers are well underway in communities across the country, led by nonprofit resettlement agencies, faith organizations, and private volunteers. Ensuring that Syrian and other refugees successfully integrate not only helps them and their families but also benefits the entire nation. These efforts stand in sharp contrast to the president’s executive order that shuts the doors on them.

How do Syrian refugees get here and where are they resettled?

More than 15,000 Syrian refugees arrived in the United States in 2016 alone. All refugees from Syria undergo an enhanced review process in addition to the multiple layers of security screenings that all refugees go through. They undergo a rigorous screening and vetting process, in-person interviews, and background checks that often take years to complete. On average, it takes 18 months to 24 months for a refugee application to be approved.

Once in the United States, the government and nine resettlement agencies work to spread new refugees to communities across the country, based on factors such as existing family connections, job opportunities, and affordable housing. Hundreds of Syrian refugees have been placed in large cities such as San Diego, Chicago, and Dallas, but a significant number of them are placed in smaller cities, including Troy, Michigan; Glendale, Arizona; and Clinton Township, Michigan.

Ten states have resettled nearly 70 percent of the Syrian refugees. The top five states are California, Michigan, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Arizona.

In terms of demographics, about half—or 8,709—of the Syrian refugees are children under age 14, and nearly all of the total Syrian refugees are Muslim.

How are local communities helping Syrian refugees resettle and integrate?

One of the primary goals of the U.S. refugee resettlement efforts, as stated in the Refugee Act of 1980, is for refugees to quickly become economically self-sufficient. The federal government provides states with minimum short-term resources to support new refugees. But that support has been steadily decreasing over the years, and the need for local communities to step up to help refugees is increasing. Many local groups and individuals around the country are working together to meet the needs of the Syrian refugees in their communities. Once refugees arrive, local volunteers can plug in to the efforts of local resettlement agencies and nonprofits—from picking them up at the airport to helping them get housing and navigate life in America.

There is a thriving Syrian immigrant community in the United States, and many of these immigrants have been living here for decades. A recent issue brief by the Center for American Progress and the Fiscal Policy Institute found that members of the Syrian immigrant community in the United States are generally well-educated, have high earnings, and own businesses at remarkably high rates. Given that they share the language and culture of Syrian refugees and have done well here, they are in an ideal position to be a strong receiving community to ease the integration of newcomers.

In Chicago, for example, the local Syrian Community Network organizes cultural sensitivity training for refugees to introduce them to new societal norms and serves as a resource for other resettlement groups. It also offers trainings on skill building, job searching, work conduct, and the English language. Similarly, in Houston, the Syrian American Club—a community of doctors, engineers, and entrepreneurs from all walks of life—is actively involved in helping Syrian refugees adapt by, for example, completing job applications, babysitting their children, and driving them to job interviews.

Faith groups across the United States are also providing a support network for Syrian refugee families. For example, St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church in Rhode Island offers a variety of services supporting refugees, both Christians and Muslims. The church is working to connect refugees with jobs, legal assistance, and apartments. In Tucson, Arizona, a Muslim community center conducts a Sunday school where Muslim children can learn English in a comfortable environment and maintain a connection with their religion, culture, and language. Besan Adnan, a 9-year-old Syrian refugee, attends this school on Sundays and goes to a public school during the week. Adnan, now fluent in English, teaches English to her mother and helps her during grocery runs and doctor visits. Adnan exemplifies the outcome these efforts are designed to achieve—to help make sure these newcomers can adjust to life in the United States.

Private volunteers have also been actively involved in supporting Syrians in their communities. For example, a program run by the Integrated Refugee and Immigration Services in Connecticut allows people to sign up to help refugees. These volunteers have helped resettle 28 families, or a total of 150 refugees, around the state. For example, volunteers—ranging from a retired culinary instructor to a retired lawyer—are part of a core group that helped Syrian refugee Fadi al-Asmi, a former pastry shop co-owner from Damascus who now works making desserts at a local café in Hartford.

Effect of Trump’s planned executive order

The American response to the recent Syrian refugee crisis has paled in comparison to the efforts of other resettlement countries, such as Canada, and even more so relative to countries of first asylum, such as Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. These three countries combined are hosting nearly 4.5 million of the total 4.8 million Syrian refugees registered with the UNHCR.

Under President Barack Obama, the United States had pledged to accept 110,000 refugees in 2017, up significantly from the 85,000 admission slots in 2016 but still far short of the 200,000 figure called for by dozens of refugee advocates. But the advances made during the Obama administration will now be undone if President Donald Trump follows through on plans to block admission of Syrian refugees, halt all resettlement for the next four months, and more than halve the total refugee allotments to 50,000 admission slots.

In taking these actions, President Trump would be making good on some of the ugliest and most dangerous promises he made during the campaign, including his call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” In effect, by banning the admission of Syrian refugees, who are overwhelmingly Muslim, and blocking the issuance of visas to Iranians, Iraqis, Libyans, Somalis, Sudanese, Syrians, and Yemenis, all Muslim-majority nations, until further notice—another expected component of the executive actions—the president would be imposing his promised Muslim ban. And by adopting policies that target Muslims, these actions would undermine American security.

Conclusion

Offering humanitarian support to those who need it most has been a hallmark of American tradition for a long time. Since 1975, the United States has resettled more 3 million refugees from all over the world, regardless of their faith. The United States welcomed more than 200,000 refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1970s, Bosnians and Europeans in the 1990s, and more recently, refugees from Burma, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Research shows that over time, refugees in the United States have made notable strides in education, gotten better wages, moved into better occupations, and started businesses.

Now is not the time to shut the doors on the “your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” America must continue its tradition of providing humanitarian assistance to refugees and also should not lose sight of the opportunities that refugees represent. For those who are already here, resettlement was just one chapter of their story. The next chapter is to build better lives while making contributions to society and bringing the community together. Big and small efforts to help refugees reach their potential and ease their integration into American society will have positive effects for local economies. But for those who are still seeking a refuge away from unimaginable horrors, this is the time for America to remain a beacon of hope and to offer them welcome.

Silva Mathema is a Senior Policy Analyst for the Immigration team at the Center for American Progress. She would like to thank Tom Jawetz and Philip E. Wolgin for their input.