As U.S. Announces Plan To Accept More Refugees, Michigan Gets Ready

Sep 22, 2015
Originally published on September 24, 2015 1:00 pm

The Syrian refugee crisis has forced President Obama to consider admitting many more refugees to the U.S. Recently, Secretary of State John Kerry pledged that the United States will take 100,000 refugees a year by 2017, increasing from 70,000 this year.

If there is an influx of Syrians, many could end up resettling in the Detroit area, which has one of the largest Arab communities outside the Arab world.

Local refugee advocates say they're equipped, but already feeling frustrated.

For most Americans, the images of desperate refugees — mostly Syrian — crowding barricades, packing trains and even drowning in attempts to reach the European Union came as a heartbreaking wake-up call.

But it came as no surprise at all to people who work with refugees. In fact, they've been predicting just this kind of thing for a while now.

"Naturally, when there are these rebellions and these wars, good people have to go somewhere. And they run. They flee. They can't stay," says Deborah Drennan, executive director of Detroit's Freedom House. Her organization is responsible for serving asylum seekers already in the U.S.

In addition to neighboring countries and now, Europe — to which millions of Syrians have already fled — the U.S. is considered a logical destination for refugees. In fact, decades of conflict in the Middle East have driven waves of migration here, particularly to the Detroit area.

As a result, refugee "resettlement" agencies in the state say they're ready.

"We've had some years now to smooth the process and be ready for new populations, such as the Syrian refugees," Jeralda Hattar, director of immigration and refugee services at Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan, says.

Most recently, they've resettled a lot of Iraqis in metro Detroit. Hattar thinks this could help some Syrian refugees feel more at home.

"The good thing is that it is a population that speaks the same language as the Iraqi community, so they speak Arabic. Culturally there are a lot of similarities, obviously," Hattar says.

But Hattar cautions that metro Detroit isn't necessarily the easiest place for refugees. It's sprawling, public transportation is unreliable and housing can be surprisingly inaccessible.

Hattar says refugee agencies, and more informal networks in the Arab-American community, can fill that gap to some extent. So far, she's resettled just 16 Syrian families. Another one is arriving soon.

"It's a couple and 2-year-old son. I have no idea what they've experienced," Hattar says.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the U.S. has gotten stingier about granting asylum. People fleeing the Middle East also have to go through additional layers of security to make sure they're not linked to terror groups.

Hattar says there simply aren't enough personnel overseas willing or able to do that kind of screening.

Rasha Basha has dealt with that process firsthand. She's from Syria but has lived in Michigan for many years. While Basha's sister was visiting the U.S., a bombing forced her two teenage sons to flee Syria.

Basha says they ended up in Turkey and were stuck there for several years as American officials turned them away multiple times.

"It was very, very difficult at first. I mean, we tried three times to get them to apply for a visitor's visa to get them over here. And they were rejected," Basha says.

The family was finally reunited last month after her sister was granted asylum in the U.S.

Basha says they are the rare lucky ones. Despite the recent announcement to significantly increase the number of migrants the U.S. accepts over the next two years, it has accepted fewer than 2,000 Syrian refugees so far.

Basha says this country can and should do better. She points to the more generous response after the U.S. pulled military forces out of Vietnam.

"Over 200,000 refugees were brought into the U.S. So I just don't understand: Why not Syrians?" Basha says

Refugee advocates admit that those were very different political and national security environments. They also say that simply accepting more refugees won't just make this crisis go away.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

As Europe struggles to deal with a crush of Syrian refugees and is slamming doors it had opened, the U.S. has just upped its small quota for refugees to 100,000 by 2017. As Michigan Radio’s Sarah Cwiek reports, refugee advocates in her area, Detroit,say they're ready to help those fleeing Syria, but frustrated it's taken so long to allow them in.

SARAH CWIEK, BYLINE: For most Americans, the images of desperate refugees, mostly Syrian,crowding barricades, packing trains, even drowning in attempts to reach the European Union came as a heartbreaking wake-up call. But it came as no surprise at all to people who work with refugees. In fact, they've been predicting just this kind of thing for a while now.

DEBORAH DRENNAN: Naturally when there are these rebellions and these wars, good people have to go somewhere. And they run. They flee. They can't stay.

CWIEK: That's Deborah Drennan. She's the executive director of Detroit's Freedom House which serves asylum seekers already in the U.S. Among others, she's talking about the millions of Syrians that have fled to neighboring countries and now to Europe. The U.S. might also seem like a logical destination. In fact, decades of conflict in the Middle East has driven waves of migration here, particularly to the Detroit area.

JERALDA HATTAR: We've had some years now to smooth the process and be ready for a new population, such as the Syrian refugees.

CWIEK: Jeralda Hattar works for Catholic Social Services of Southeast Michigan. It's one of a handful of refugee resettlement agencies in the state. Most recently they've resettled a lot of Iraqis in metro Detroit. Hattar says that could help some Syrian refugees feel more at home.

HATTAR: The good thing is that it is a population that speaks the same language as the Iraqi communities, so they speak Arabic. Culturally there are a lot of similarities, obviously.

CWIEK: But Hattar cautions that metro Detroit isn't necessarily the easiest place for refugees. It's sprawling. Public transportation is unreliable, and housing can be surprisingly inaccessible. Hattar says refugee agencies and more informal networks in the Arab-American community can fill that gap to some extent. She has resettled just 16 Syrian families so far. Another one is arriving soon.

HATTAR: It's a couple and 2-year-old son. I have no idea what they've experienced.

CWIEK: Since the September 11 attacks, the U.S. has gotten stingier about granting asylum, and people fleeing the Middle East have to go through additional layers of security to make sure they're not linked to terror groups. Hattar says there simply aren't enough personnel overseas willing or able to do that kind of screening. Rasha Basha has dealt with that firsthand. She's from Syria but has lived in Michigan for many years. While Basha's sister was visiting the U.S., a bombing forced her two teenage sons to flee Syria. Basha says they ended up in Turkey and were stuck there for several years as American officials turned them away.

RASHA BASHA: It was very, very difficult at first. I mean, we tried three times to apply for a visitor visa to get them over here, and they were rejected.

CWIEK: The family was finally reunited last month after her sister was granted asylum here. Basha says they are the rare lucky ones. The U.S. has accepted fewer than 2,000 Syrian refugees so far. Just this week, Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. will accept an additional 15,000 refugees in the coming year and up to 30,000 more by 2017. Most, though not all, will be Syrians. But Basha says this country can and should do even better. She points to the more generous response after the U.S. pulled military forces out of Vietnam.

BASHA: Over 200,000 refugees were brought into the U.S., so I just don't understand why not Syrian.

CWIEK: Of course that was in a very different political and national security environment. Refugee advocates admit that. But they say it also won't make this crisis go away. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Cwiek. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.