America’s Syrian Refugees: Hardship, Hope and Challenges

mai abdul rahman             December 18, 2015


The plight of the Syrian refugees has moved some Americans, but is most acutely felt by Arab and Muslim Americans. While Syrians comprise many faiths, the vast majority of Americans assume that all are “Muslim” fanatical radicals. So far, 32 states have rejected the admission and relocation of the Syrian refugees into their states for fear that members of terrorist groups may use the refugee resettlement program to enter the country and harm innocent Americans.

Those who oppose the entry of immigrants whether from Syria or South America have forgotten that the United States, as we know it today, is the product of immigrants and refugees. After WWI, the US Refugee Resettlement program supported hundreds of thousands of German citizens, Russians, Italians, and Holocaust survivors. In recent history, the US welcomed more than 1.6 million refugees from Cuba, the Balkans, and Vietnam. The presence of these immigrants in local communities reduced American hostilities towards Catholics, Jews, Confucians, and Buddhists, paving the way for the full acceptance and inclusion of these minority groups into the social fabric of our country.

Never mind our core valuesnoble ideals, or the accurecy of commonly held assumptions, the US is directly responsible for the humanitarian crisis in Syria. While the US is not the only nation contributing to the global Syrian refugee crisis, we bear much of the responsibility for fueling the flight of Syrian refugees throughout Europe and the Middle East, far more than most are willing to recognize.

According to a report published by the Congressional Research Service, since 2011, the US has committed more than $7.7 billion to the war in Syria. The US daily spends at least $3 Million to conduct air strikes in the Syrian territory. Whether we wish to acknowledge our role in the Syrian civil war or not, our daily air strikes are partly responsible for driving more than 4 million Syrians and Palestinian Syrian refugees into Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. We are equally responsible for the 232,000 desperate Syrians who made it to Europe on foot or by boat. Meanwhile, the US has only accepted 1,434 Syrian refugees. This accounts for less than 0.042 percent of the 4 million people who have fled the country to settle in the tent cities that spread across the Middle East, for the very conflict that the US is partly responsible for. IMG_5785

President Barack Obama intends to admit 10,000 Syrians by September 2016. While it is common sense to call on federal agencies to put the appropriate safeguards in place to ensure that immigration officials vet the Syrian refugees who enter this country, it is also important to remember that those who flee the war in Syria are by and large families, who desire a better future for their children.

Meanwhile, the likelihood of accepting more Syrian refugees requires federal agencies responsible for resettling the new arrivals to put in place the necessary support systems to ensure the families’ full integration, economic inclusion, and socialization in the US.

Nine U.S. Refugee Resettlement Agencies will be responsible for settling the 10,000 new Syrian refugees into local communities across the US. Except, for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), all are faith-based groups (8 Christian, 1 Jewish), and none are Arab or Muslim American. The vast majority of the resettlement agencies elicit the support of local church groups to help settle the new Syrian refugees regardless of their faith. The faith community involves thousands of private American citizens, who volunteer their time to help refugees resettle in the United States. By and large, their efforts are successful.

Not all refugee settlement programs are equal. Arab and Muslim Americans are concerned that many of the newly arrived Syrian refugees are being settled at Parkview Garden Apartments, an IRC refugee camp where hundreds of resettled refugee families from Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia reside. Some live in rat infested homes, and all are without access to public transportation, or nearby job opportunities.

Before arriving to the US, the Syrian families were told they would settle in close proximity of Washington, DC, in Silver Spring, Maryland. Instead they were placed in Riverdale, Maryland. They are tucked away from the local community in a confined area that is inaccessible. They live in a community that is without the minimum infrastructure to support those willing to venture outside their closed compound by walking or biking to seek jobs in neighboring towns. According to a recent report, resettled refugees residing in Parkview Garden Apartments struggle to find permanent employment or pay for basic needs. Larry Bartlett, the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the State Department, is quoted as saying that he is aware that many of the newly settled Iraqi and Afghani refugees have returned back to their war torn countries.

In fact, within a month of the arrival of a Syrian family of five, IRC informed them that if they are unable to secure rent by the end of December they will be evicted and risk becoming homeless. Apparently, becoming homeless is highly probable among newly resettled refugees. In 2009, a study concluded that a considerable number of recent refugees end up homeless.

IMG_5805According to IRC, the federal funds extended to the Syrian family were spent by program caseworkers on the purchases of two broken and used sofas, three beds, four chairs, three of which are broken, a small dining table, and few kitchen supplies. Meanwhile, the remaining $150 was given to the family of five courtesy of the US resettlement program.

IMG_5752There is no question that IRC has played an important role in advocating for the Syrian refugees and facilitating  their resettlement in the US. So, is it possible that IRC is underfunded and is unable to cover the full costs of resettling the Syrian refugees in the US as mandated by the standard cooperative agreement between the Department of State and IRC?

You, be the judge. According to IRC’s 2013 financial statement and 990 IRS tax form; IRC’s total revenues are $567,870,359, which is a considerable sum for a non-profit organization. More than 70% of IRC’s operating costs are derived from federal funds to cover the cost of settling 800 refugees in the US. Meanwhile, IRC’s CEO has a reported income of $332,778, IRC’s senior vice president’s reported income is $305,064, and IRC’s former CEO still receives $338,855. These salaries are slightly less than the salary of the president of the United States. In fact, IRC funds are huge by any measure. IRC’s total salaries account for $200 Million. If these salaries are solely used for covering the cost of settling the 800 refugees, each will receive a handsome sum of $250,000. Clearly funding is not an issue for IRC.

While most of us are pleased to hear of President Obama’s intent to bring larger numbers of Syrian refugees to the US, we are also concerned about the effectiveness of the US resettlement program. Simply stated: Are the structural supports, management oversight, and the necessary commitment in place to ensure that the Syrian refugees will not end up homeless soon after they arrive?IMG_5777-2

It cannot be understated that the Syrian families are grateful for the generosity of US agencies who made it possible for them to immigrate to the US. They are happy to be living in peace without fear of being deported, or harassed. They are thrilled for the opportunity to build a new life and realize their dreams. Nonetheless, they are also worried. Their concerns range from acquiring meaningful employment, securing rent, covering the cost of transportation to seek employment, and having adequate cash to meet their daily needs. They also worry that their children are wasting time while waiting to be enrolled in their neighborhood elementary school. For any family these are serious concerns. Especially for recent refugees who are struggling to understand their new landscape; are learning a new language, customs, and social norms, while navigating their surroundings in a hostile environment that does not approve of them or their status. The additional burden of calling attention to their needs, and the needs of their children has become overwhelming.

Many of the these concerns can be resolved, when these families are offered the right conduit to express their frustrations without being afraid that they may be offending their hosts. The Arab and Muslim American community are committed to the success of the new Syrian refugees, and their full social and economic inclusion. Nonetheless, this will depend on whether or not the US government is willing to meaningfully engage Arab and Muslim Americans in the US resettlement program and process.

Involving Arab and Muslim American organizations can help safeguard the emotional and financial stability of these families. For example, the Arab and Muslim American community can augment services not covered by organizations such as IRC. They can make available the services of local Arab speaking cross cultural therapists and trauma specialists to help support the Syrian children. When disputes arise members of the Arab and Muslim American community can help resolve disagreements in an amicable and orderly manner, and ascertain any issues of importance are addressed in an environment where the new Syrian families are comfortable to discuss their apprehensions without fear of being misunderstood, or ignored.

The inclusion of Arab and Muslim American organizations in the US resettlement program will speed the acculturation process of the newly settled Syrian families. Arab and Muslim Americans can play an important role in smoothing the transitions of these families. They can help guide the new Syrian immigrants to make sense of their new American experience, and buffer them from the poisonous US discourse on Islam and the Syrian conflict that has affected the best of us. They can bridge  the cultural competencies of the new refugees, help them better understand the US democratic process, and help their young assimilate in a manner that does not contradict with the organic traditions of their families. Above all they are mindful of the importance of leveraging the innate strengths and resiliency of the Syrian immigrants to help them overcome past hardships and realize their full potential.

Involving members of the American Arab and Muslim community and their organizations in the Refugee resettlement program will strengthen the overall objective of the program. It will also create the necessary structural support networks that will contribute to the success of the new Syrian immigrants and their full integration in their new communities.

One thought on “America’s Syrian Refugees: Hardship, Hope and Challenges

  1. Pingback: America's Syrian Refugees: Hardship, Hope and Challenges - Post - Arab America

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