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Can Syrians Find Refuge
In The Phoenix Metro?

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Despite The Rhetoric, Refugees Are Not Only In Need Of New Places To Live, But Must Pass Rigorous Screening Processes To Be Granted A Visa To The Land Of The Free


By Wayne Schutsky
Modern Times Magazine

Dec. 19, 2015 — As 2016 approaches, Syria is entering the sixth year of its civil war that began during the Arab Spring in 2011. For most Syrians, violence remains a daily boggle, forcing more than 4 million Syrian citizens to flee their homes and seek refuge in other nations.

The international response to the crisis has been uneven. For instance, German authorities recently announced that the country could accept up to 1.5 million refugees this year, prompting Chancellor Angela Merkel to call for a reduction in refugees coming to the country. Turkey (2.29 million refugees), Lebanon (1.07 million) and Jordan (633,000) have also led the charge in accepting Syrian refugees, according to Syrian Refugee Regional Response data from the UN Refugee Agency.

Compared with those nations, the U.S. response to the refugee crisis has been underwhelming. The U.S. has admitted just 2,034 Syrian refugees into the country since 2011, according to an infographic released by the White House. This laggard response is in spite of the fact that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, has referred 23,092 Syrian refugees to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program during the same span.

Of the over 2,000 Syrian refugees in the U.S., about 100 to 200 currently live in Arizona, according to the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

Syrian refugees in this country are just looking to rebuild their lives, said Zana Alattar, a student at Arizona State University founder and national student director at Students Organize 4 Syria (SOS), a national organization aiming to shed light on the situation in Syria and provide humanitarian aid to Syrians affected by the conflict. This is a difficult task as many refugees suffer from PTSD due to trauma experienced in the Syrian Civil War. This task is made doubly difficult due to the fact that many refugees also do not speak English and must acclimate to an entirely new culture in the U.S., she said.

“My response to people voicing anti-Syrian or anti-Muslim rhetoric is to tell them to go out and meet these Syrian refugee families,” said Alattar. “Get to know what they’ve suffered through and realize that their biggest enemy is Assad, the Syrian regime and ISIS. They are the furthest from anyone who would sympathize with any of the extremists or work with them because they truly destroyed their lives.”

Prominent government officials and politicians like Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, however, disagree. Both men are calling for the U.S. to reduce its acceptance of refugees or stop admitting them entirely, claiming that some refugees are a terrorist threat. In the wake of the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, these politicians claim that refugee admittance programs are a way for extremist groups like ISIS to enter the country.

“Given the horrifying events in Paris last week, I am calling for an immediate halt in the placement of any new refugees in Arizona,” reads a statement from Gov. Doug Ducey’s office.  “As governor, I am invoking our state’s right under 8 USC, Section 1522 (a), to receive immediate consultation by federal authorities per the United States Refugee Act, and that the federal government take into account the concerns and recommendations of the state of Arizona as they are required to under federal law, in our efforts to keep our homeland safe. I also call on Congress and the President to immediately amend federal law to provide states greater oversight and authority in the administration of the placement of refugees. These acts serve as a reminder that the world remains at war with radical Islamic terrorists. Our national leaders must react with the urgency and leadership that every American expects to protect our citizens.”

While the anti-refugee rhetoric is gaining steam — 28 governors have voiced opposition to resettling Syrian refugees in their states — there is very little truth to the fears it is stoking, and it is worth noting that of the 2,034 Syrian refugees currently in the U.S., zero have been arrested on terrorism-related charges, and neither attacker in the San Bernardino shooting entered the U.S. as a refugee.

Refugees hoping to enter the U.S. face extremely stringent entry requirements that disqualify many applicants and make the process long for those that are accepted. After being referred by UNHCR, refugee applicants are received by a federally-funded Resettlement Support Center, according to the White House.

They then must undergo numerous background checks and screenings from federal agencies, including security checks from National Counterterrorism Center, FBI, DHS and the State Department; DHS interviews; biometric security checks; and medical checks.

There is also a problem of negative islamic perceptions that make life difficult for those refugees already in the country and could make future refugee resettlements difficult to accomplish.

“We first acknowledge that this is a controversial issue and that fear is natural,” said Connie Phillips, president and CEO of Lutheran Social Services, a non-profit organization that provides resettlement services for refugees in Arizona. “We need to provide information showing the U.S. is a place that welcomes those in need and that the people coming here are escaping terrible situations. We need to put in perspective that these are people just like us.”

Around 80 percent of the refugees that are entering the U.S. are women and children. Some have waited 10 years or more to be admitted, and many are victims of terrorism themselves, according to a release from Lutheran Social Services.

While talking heads are attempting to stop the flow of refugees into the country, organizations like SOS are attempting to make the resettlement process easier by providing English tutors for refugee children, events for families and participating in gift drives. Alattar is also the president of the ASU chapter of SOS, which provides tutors from ASU for refugee children. The organization also hosts carnivals and other events for families, so they can come together and develop a support network.

Refugees also receive support from organizations like Lutheran Social Services. The organization provides many services to incoming refugees, including housing, case management, English-language training, job placement and skills training.

Lutheran Social Services also provides financial support for 3 to 4 months, and most refugees the organization works with are expected to be financially self-sufficient within 180 days, according to a release from the non-profit.

“Our main point is to share that these are hardworking people and good citizens,” said Phillips.  

On Jan. 13, the award-winning debate series Intelligence Squared will tackle the subject  with “The U.S. Should Let in 100,000 Syrian Refugees” when International Rescue Committee President & CEO David Miliband faces off against The Atlantic Senior Editor David Frum and Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at Center for Immigration Studies. Miliband will be arguing for the motion while Frum and Vaughan will argue against it.

The event takes place at the Kaufman Center, 129 W. 69th St., New York. It can also be viewed online.

In the near future, Arizona could become home to an additional 400 refugees under President Obama’s plan to admit 10,000 more refugees to the U.S. next year. While a sizable increase over the number of refugees currently in the country, that plan is far less than comparable countries such as Canada, whose government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to resettle 25,000 refugees in the next three months.

Despite the negative rhetoric making headlines, these refugees are likely going to be met with a positive response on the local level.

“Luckily, I think [Syrian refugees in Arizona] have been faced with welcoming attitudes and generous hearts thus far, and I hope that it continues to stay that way,” said Alattar.

To view the Infographic: The Screening Process for Refugee Entry into the United States click here.
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