While the first wave of Syrian refugees are not likely to arrive in the U.S. for many months, charitable and humanitarian groups across the country are already getting ready for their arrival.
Non-governmental humanitarian groups, which rely heavily on charitable donations, have been supporting Syrians since the beginning of the crisis.
They say donor response has increased substantially over the past few weeks in response to heightened media coverage of the refugee crisis, especially the widely-circulated photo of drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi.
“The donor response has been less than what we see after a natural disaster like the earthquake in Nepal but is has been just as strong, if not stronger, than the initial public response to slower-moving crises like Ebola in West Africa or the famine in the Sahel in 2013,” said Alison Carlman, senior manager of marketing and communications for GlobalGiving, a crowd funding platform for a variety of grassroots charitable projects that has supported the Syrian refugee crisis since 2012.
“To date, GlobalGiving has raised $356,550 from 2,420 individual donors based in 60 countries. The majority of those donors are from the United States — 86 percent,” she said.
Not surprisingly, faith-based groups have actively supported Syrians fleeing conflict.
Syrian immigrant children on Washington Street in the Lower Manhattan, N.Y., neighborhood known as "Little Syria," in 1916. Bain collection at the Library of Congress.
The Zakat Foundation of America, a Chicago-based Muslim nonprofit has so far provided $8 million in aid to displaced Syrians.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, partnering with 50 Jewish organizations, provided about a half million dollars in medical and humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees in Jordan and Turkey, and is working to expand those efforts to Europe.
But when it comes to opening its doors to refugees, the U.S. response has been slow. So far, it has admitted only 1,500 Syrians into the United States but has indicated that it will raise that number to 10,000 during fiscal year 2016.
The first significant wave of Syrian immigrants in the United States began arriving in the 1880s.
Today, Syrians account for about eight percent of the approximately one million immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa currently living in the United States. They are mostly centered in Los Angeles, the New York City metropolitan area, Detroit and Chicago, where many incoming Syrians will also likely want to settle.
Syrian immigrants can also be found in less populated urban centers. Of the 858 Syrian refugees resettled in the U.S. this fiscal year, 20 have settled in Phoenix, Arizona. Catholic Charities has been there to help.
“We have been resettling refugees in Phoenix for over 30 years, and we work hard to engage and educate the community about refugee resettlement and how it works,” said Joanne Morales, Director of Refugee Programs at Catholic Charities in an emailed response.
With the help of local churches and other charitable groups, her group helps newcomers to find housing, assists in enrolling children in school, helps refugees get work permits and Social Security cards, and refers them to training in English as a second language.
“The local Syrian community has already expressed its willingness to be a part of this process as well. We also consult regularly with schools, police, health service providers, employers, and inform them of trends, refugees arriving, etc.”
Morales said it is too soon to tell how many refugees could ultimately come to Phoenix.
“The president determines in October each year the annual Refugee Admissions level,” she said. “This is then broken down by region. However, it is important to recognize that these are ceilings."
Refugees undergo rigorous security checks and health screening prior to being admitted into the U.S, so even if a number is allocated, the actual number of people who arrive will depend on the above factors as well as others,” she added.
Resettling refugees is a lengthy process.
“It takes between 18 to 24 months between when a refugee is referred to us and when they – if approved, when they end up arriving in the United States,” a senior State Department official told reporters in a recent teleconference. “And a big reason for this is the care that’s put into the security vetting for them.”
Personnel from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services will travel abroad to interview every candidate and then run their names through a series of government databases.
“What we’re trying to do is weed out people who are liars, who are criminals, or would-be terrorists,” said the official. “And this is something that slows down the process and it’s taken very seriously by everyone involved in it.”
The worry is that militants from the Islamic State and other terrorist groups could insert themselves into the wave of refugees, a concern that has been voiced by many U.S. officials and lawmakers — among them, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Representative Michael McCaul of Texas.
“From a national security standpoint, I take ISIS it's at its word when they said, in their own words, that ‘We’ll always use and exploit the refugee crisis to infiltrate the west,’” he told ABC television Sunday.
Vietnamese boat people rescued northeast of Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, after spending eight days at sea. 15 May 1984. (US Navy)
The ‘right side’ of history
Beyond security concerns, refugees and those helping to settle them in the U.S. may face opposition from those who simply do not want large groups of foreigners entering the country.
Such sentiment is not without historic precedent.
In 1924, the U.S. set annual quotas for immigrants by nationality. The 1930s saw appeals for the U.S. to raise immigration quotas for Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Nazi Germany.
Opponents, fueled by xenophobia and anti-Semitism, argued Nazis might infiltrate U.S. borders along with the refugees – or that the new arrivals would take jobs away from U.S. citizens.
It took years – and intensive lobbying by U.S. Jewish groups – to open America’s borders to Jewish refugees, three years after World War II ended.
Similarly, after the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975, many Americans opposed allowing Vietnamese refugees into the U.S. At the time, unemployment was high and there were fears that refugees would become a societal burden.
“The anti-refugee sentiment that we saw in the past is very similar to the anti-Syrian refugee sentiment that we see today,” said Jen S. Myers, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Church World Service’s Immigration and Refugee Program. “But over the course of the next decade or so, we admitted about 785,000 Vietnamese and Indochinese refugees.”
History, said Myers, shows that it was a smart move.
“Those Vietnamese refugees are now business owners, members of our families and communities, and we really value them as part of who we are as a country,” she said.
“We need to be aware of that history and make sure that we are on the right side of it,” she added. “Especially now that, looking back, we really herald individuals and politicians who took leadership to extend a welcome during that time.”