By Jessica Palumbo, Esq.
As an immigration attorney who used to work in refugee resettlement, I get a lot of questions about how to best help Syrian refugees. As we, here in the United States, head into the traditional “season of giving” and are, as many around the world, inundated with images and stories of Middle Eastern refugees, persecuted on account of their religion, seeking a safe place to birth and raise their child, it is understandable why many are focusing on the desperate humanitarian crisis spilling out of the Middle East.
As many may know, this has been brewing for a significant period of time, first when many fled the post-9/11 war in Iraq into Syria and then, when that refugee population, along with many Syrians, fled the Syrian civil war. These people flowed into Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and other countries looking for safety. According to some reports, one out of every four people in Lebanon is a refugee from Syria. These countries of first asylum have been able to hold it together for a while, but they are now completely overwhelmed. Food aid has ended for many and, due to the desperate situation, some of these countries have actually begun to deport refugees caught working illegally to camps or, worse, Syria. Reports from the field indicate that child labor is skyrocketing in some areas because the penalties for children working are much less severe than adults. Child marriage is rising as a means for desperate parents to secure what future possible for their children. A feeling prevalent among many refugees in these countries of first asylum is that the only thing they have left to lose is their lives, so they might as well risk the trip to Europe – trying that is better than it not working where they are right now. Thus, 5,000 Syrian refugees arrive on the shores of Europe each day, constituting the worst refugee crisis since World War II.
But you know all of that. You just want to help.
What can you do to help?
The reality is that the pipeline for Syrian refugees to get into the United States is long – the process is takes a lot of time and is intense, with a minimum of three interviews; a battery of security checks at several points throughout the process, including fingerprint and now iris scans; and other security efforts. It takes approximately 18 months for someone to make it through the screening and be resettled here in the U.S. With processing in Damascus for many Iraqis brought to a close with the start of the Syrian civil war, it has been a challenge for the U.S. government to safely establish processing near Middle Eastern refugees in need, so there are only approximately 1,900 Syrian refugees in the U.S. today. (That is not to say that others here do not meet the legal definition of refugee – they were simply able to come through other means of the immigration program.)
Accordingly, because there are so many people waiting overseas, the biggest threat to the Syrian refugees, past and future, is the current political drive in the U.S. to unduly burden if not completely shut down the U.S. resettlement program. If you really want to help right now, the best thing to do is call your U.S. congressional representatives – they hold the keys and purse strings to the refugee program – and tell them how important the program is to you. (Pro tip: only identify yourself as a constituent if you are a U.S. Citizen.) Don’t know who represents you? Find out here: https://www.govtrack.us/congress/members/map.
The Tuesday after the attacks in Beirut and Paris, during lunch I called both of my Senators and my Representative to tell them how much the refugee resettlement program means to me. The page in one of my Senator’s offices said that my call was the first they received in favor of the program, but they received 7,000 the day before in favor of shutting the whole thing down. I was floored. The House then went on to vote overwhelmingly for an unduly burdensome layer of additional security checks by the FBI before Syrian refugees can be admitted (the “SAFE Act”). They are already subject to iris scans and exhaustive security checks at multiple stages in the resettlement process. Involving yet another government agency and more bureaucracy is easily understood as an attempt to bury the refugee resettlement program under the weight of regulation. The system has been in place for decades and has proven itself time and time again to be a system that works simultaneously to honor our historic and international obligations to those persecuted around the world while honoring America’s obligations to keep its citizens safe. The Senate is set to take on their version of the SAFE Act after Thanksgiving recess. Call your Senator’s office (or write or email or tweet) and tell them that there are better ways for the U.S. to spend money and urge them to vote no on the SAFE Act, then urge your friends and family to do the same.
Sign up for legislative advocacy alerts from the VOLAGs
These are the nine organizations who work with the Department of State and the International Organization for Migration to bring refugees accepted for resettlement to the U.S. The VOLAGs are essentially the administrative link between the refugee resettlement approval and the point in which the refugee arrives at the airport to find someone holding a sign in their native language that reads “Welcome to America.” The International Rescue Committee (www.rescue.org), HIAS (www.hias.org), the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCRI; www.refugees.org), Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS; www.lirs.org), World Relief (www.worldrelief.org), and Church World Service (www.cwsglobal.org) are all running robust advocacy efforts now, complete with links, scripts, and ready updates on legislation to watch. (The other VOLAGs are involved as well: Catholic Charities (www.usccb.org) , the Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC; www.ecdcus.org), Episcopal Migration Ministries EMM; www.episcopalmigrationministries.org). The International Refugee Assistance Project (refugeerights.org/tag/irap/) is also working on these issues. Monetary support to these agencies will help in the legislative fight regarding the future of refugee resettlement in this country as well.
If you are more hands-on...
Each of these VOLAGs partners with agencies on the local level to provide support to Syrians or the other refugees, including the Central American refugee crisis. On the websites included above, you can find information about your local affiliates and can contact them to identify local needs.
If collecting and donating goods is more your speed, Carry the Future (www.carrythefuture.org) collects baby carriers for refugees struggling to safely move their children somewhere safe and accepts donations of baby carriers as well as donations to sponsor relief packs, of blankest, sleeping bags, and other necessities which are in dire need as winter weather settles over this massive displaced population. USCCB is an organization coordinating donations of goods to address needs of refugees along the southern border of the U.S., where numerous refugees from Central America struggle to meet their needs while they work through the American immigration process and the first Syrian families were reported to appear last week.
Please note that this material is deemed to be a simple place to start in offering help. It reflects my personal perspective after some years of working in humanitarian perspective but it is neither authoritative nor exhaustive. As a dear friend once reflected, “four plus five equals nine, but so does three times three and one plus eight.”