Posted by Guest on September 19, 2016 in Blog

CsZo_PGWEAAcqta.jpgBy Mahamad Omar

President Barack Obama’s administration plans to increase the entry of worldwide refugees into the United States in 2017 to 110,000, according to an annual refugee report to Congress obtained Tuesday by The Wall Street Journal. Up from 85,000 this fiscal year, the raise marks nearly a 30% increase.  The last year the U.S. committed to settling as many refugees was in 1995, when President Bill Clinton set the ceiling at 112,000. While many advocates do not see this plan as enough to handle the historic nature of the refugee crisis, leaders from faith-based organizations, community groups and members of Congress called for Congress to do more to support refugees including an increase in the numbers accepted and supporting their transition after arrival.

 During a press conference on the House Triangle at the U.S. Capitol, Rev. Sharon Stanley-Rea, director of the Refugee & Immigration Services of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), began with a statement connecting the refugees to the American experience. She said, “We thank God also for the amazing values of resiliency, of courage, of family unity, and of hope in the future that we know we have seen demonstrated in the lives of refugees every day. Those are strong faith values and they are our best American values.” The spirit of this message would be present throughout the conference.

Rev. Stanley-Rea discussed the immensity of the refugee crisis, with over 65 million persons displaced. She noted the various campaigns of more than 300,000 Americans who have participated in response to the crisis. She pointed to five boxes in front of the podium, with 10,000 letters and postcards supporting the refugees, that would be delivered to conservative leadership after the press conference.

California Congressman Juan Vargas emphasized his Christian faith to begin his call for support of refugees. He evoked Jesus’ past status as a refugee. “Jesus too was a refugee. He had to go to Egypt if you recall,” he said, “What would have happened if they wouldn’t have accepted him?”

Congressman Vargas spoke of the family of four he welcomed into his home who were escaping ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. He called it “an incredible blessing.” He said that it brought him much closer to his “brothers” and “sisters” of the Muslim faith. He concluded by calling for Congress to do more in allowing for the entry of additional refugees into America and an increase in funding to support refugees abroad.

CsZuLV6WIAA96Yx.jpgNew Jersey Congressman Bill Pascrell quoted the Bible to begin his message. “If you welcome the stranger you welcome me (Matthew: 25),” he said. In contrast, he spoke of the opposition to Syrian refugee resettlement, and in particular fellow New Jersian Gov. Chris Christie’s position. He read from an editorial noting , “New Jersey governor and presidential candidate Chris Christie lapped all of his competitors in this sickening race to the bottom with his comment that he’d reject any Syrian refugee, even orphans under five. What New Jersey has to fear about Syrian kids is quite unclear.”

Congressman Pascrell pulled out a picture of Rahma al-Taqwa, a refugee constituent of Arab descent from his district. He asked, “Would they have the guts to tell Rahma al-Taqwa, would any of them have the guts to go up to her and say ‘We are not going to let you in. You cannot come in,’? When you understand what they went through to get here, their family.” He called the opposition of Syrian immigration “home-baked prejudice”, and those who are fighting for the support of refugees the “real Americans”.

Imam Hassan A. Amin from Baltimore spoke next. He brought attention to the historical pattern of xenophobia, towards the Irish and Italians for their Catholic roots and the prejudice against Jews who, in tragic irony, were kept out for fear of Nazi infiltration. Despite the initial rejection, Imam Amin noted how upon arrival these groups, along with others, contributed greatly to the growth of America. From these experiences, Imam Amin said, “This is the 21st century and it is my hope that we as a multicultural nation have evolved out of our negative, yesterday selves. We cannot close the door to refugees in need of a new and safe home to live. America is a nation of refugees or immigrants that have collectively helped to make America the great nation that it is today.”

Dr. James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, spoke about his father who came to the U.S. in the 1920s with a Syrian passport. At the time, the Senate had passed legislation calling Syrians an “undesirable group of people.” Senator David Reed from Pennsylvania described Syrians as “trash”. Despite these obstacles, his father would obtain citizenship a few decades after his arrival. Dr. Zogby said he keeps his father’s naturalization form on the wall of his office so “I will never forget the story of America that is mine.”

CsZxb8iWgAAO6Vv.jpgIn reflection of America’s history of immigration, Dr. Zogby said, “We are both. We are a both a country that has excluded and a country that has welcomed and absorbed. That’s who we are.” He urged the audience to not forget either the exclusion, which would leave America vulnerable to a “new generation of bigots”, or the welcome, which would mean we “lose hope”. He described the refugee crisis as not only a “moral crisis”, but also a “political crisis worldwide.” Dr. Zogby called for America to “man up” in support of refugees and to stand up against the bigotry.

Pastor Scott Arbeiter, president of World Relief, began by discussing his organization’s 40-year history of resettling about 300,000 refugees from almost every part of the globe in 27 cities. He would go further, saying, “The beauty in those stories is the stories of real lives and real people being rebuilt. Coming in having been unwelcome almost anywhere in the world and finding that in American communities the arms were open and they were welcome. In the power of that welcome, we found that lives were rebuilt and communities and refugees in the end were being richer for the experience.” 

On the topic of the present crisis, Pastor Arbeiter said, “We have never experienced a moment of crisis in the world like we do right now.” He reasoned given the reality that 34,000 peoples are displaced every day, and the President’s promise to resettle 110,00 refugees, the country would only satisfy the global need for three days. He advocated that America can and should do more. He recognized not only World Relief, but the 1,200 congregations and countless volunteers who stand ready to help. He pushed back on the notion that immigration from Syria is dangerous, noting that there has not been a single instance where a refugee has been connected to domestic terrorism since 9/11. In the end, Pastor Arbeiter reaffirmed World Relief’s commitment to support refugees and called for others to join in on the endeavor.

Rabbi Jeffrey Saxe from Falls Church began by discussing the Jewish “sacred obligation to help the refugee.” He spoke of how the history of Jewish immigration and anti-Semitism compels Jewish people to help refugees around the world and to stand against religious persecution. He mentioned the almost 200 synagogues over the past year that have joined a welcome campaign to demonstrate support for refugees. Rabbi Saxe spoke about his pride in being part of the partnership between Jewish and Muslim clergymen to “understand each other, to get to know each other, and to work together and be ready to stand with each other against acts of prejudice.”

In conclusion, he described his congregation’s dinner held to welcome 10 Syrian refugee families. He said it was an “amazing experience” and that “we were inspired by their courage and we were inspired by their appreciation for the help they received.” His congregation was so touched they sponsored a refugee family, and hundreds in his congregation have supported families in their transition. He encouraged others to consider supporting refugees as well, calling it “incredibly rewarding and enriching to one’s life.”

Farah Marcolla, a refugee from Iraq, shared her story. She supported the U.S. intervention in Iraq in 2003 as an interpreter and engineer when she was 19 years old. Due to her ties to American forces, her husband was killed and her father was kidnapped in 2006. Moving around the country became dangerous for her and her children. She met with a nonprofit organization that helped her apply for immigration. However, due to several challenges her case was delayed for seven years.

CsZplWtWgAAVu16.jpgIn 2012, Marcolla was finally able to enter the country after sponsorship from a commander in the U.S. Navy. She ended her story by saying this: “Welcome, welcome us. We are good people. We want to be a part of the American experience. Learn more, and be part of this beautiful culture. I appreciate everything and I am willing to emphasize the help from the American people for the refugees. Because they are human just like you are. They want the best for their families. They want to have a good life.”

Jason Gorey, COO of No One Left Behind, started by stating his organization’s mission to save and support America’s wartime allies, who are often frontline interpreters. He then discussed the Special Immigrant Visa program, which aides these allies. This program faces potential cancellation if Congress does not act within the next month. Gorey, and No One Left Behind, are calling on Congress to extend the program and allocate additional Visas to “these brave individuals”. In the past week a letter was delivered to every member of Congress, signed by 30 senior officers as well as organizations representing veterans’ groups, calling on Congress to do “what’s morally right” by extending the program.

Kathy Hertz, Executive Director of D.C. Rally 4 Refugees, expressed how she was “shook to her core” by the images of Syrians fleeing and the rhetoric she heard in the United States. She went to Greece and volunteered in Lesbos to aid refugees arriving in boats from Syria. In describing her experience, she said, “I want to bring it down to the one person, the one mother I helped off the dingy, and broke down into tears because she arrived safely with her children fleeing certain death in her country. We’ve talked about how people want to come to this country. What people really want is to be able to stay in their own countries. They want to be home. They’re not looking for a handout… They’re looking to live.” Hertz called for the U.S. to do more, to resettle more refugees, arguing that failing to take action would make Americans “fundamentally different people” at odds with our immigrant heritage and hopeful ideals. 

Throughout the conference, the speakers made clear the necessity for an increase in refugee entry and support. There are over 65 million refugees, with children making up an astonishing 51%, according to the UN Refugee Agency. This is unprecedented. It requires a commitment of all global actors to respond with substantial actions. The United States is in a unique and essential position to respond to the crisis, given the size and scope of the country’s influence and power. But perhaps even more important, America’s history makes it a suitable leader in addressing the problem. We are a nation of immigrants. We must embrace that, and accept the challenge of relinquishing prejudice by welcoming those in need from around the globe as many of us were once welcomed.

Watch the full press conference here.

Mahamad Omar is a Fall 2016 Intern at the Arab American Institute.