The goal of 10,00 families was to bring Syrian refugees into small communities around the United States, supported by local faith communities. Because of the current structure of the US’s refugee assistance program this proves to be extremely difficult. Between this and the fact that I am still living in Australia I have decided to look for other ways to assist those in need. However, I wanted to write down what I have learned during the process so that if someone does decide to try something similar they can pick up where we left off.
Refugee Processing in the United States
The process of a refugee arriving in the United States is a collaboration between various public and private organisation and is easiest to understand from the top down.
Each year, the White House sets the total number of refugees to be taken by their country of origin. Last year President Obama made the decision to bring in an additional 10,000 refugees from Syria, as well as potentially raise the total number of refugees from the current 70,000.(1)
These refugees apply to come to the US through the United Nations, specifically the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). UNHCR is the lead agency for protection, camp coordination and camp management, NFIs and shelter, in Syria. They are in need of donations to support the growing burden of refugees sheltering in camps around Syria as well as those traveling to Europe (80,000 more have arrived in the first 6 weeks of 2016)
If a family is selected they must undergo the most extensive screening processes of any entrant to the United States, with background checks by the F.B.I., the Department of Homeland Security, the National Counter Terrorism Center, and the intelligence community. This process typically takes 18-24 months.
Once approved, the Department of State takes over. Each week the Department of State holds a meeting with 9 volunteer agencies which take responsibility for settling the refugees. These include:
- Lutheran Services in America (LSA)
- Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC)
- Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM)
These agencies then place refugees via one of their ~350 affiliated offices around the country.
Refugees pay the cost of their travel to the United States and usually arrive with debt as a result. During the first 3 months they are supported by the Department of State with a one-time sum, most of which goes to refugees’ rent, furnishings, food, and clothing, as well as to pay the costs of agency staff salaries, office space, and other resettlement-related expenses.
After the first 3 months refugees continue to receive support from Department of Health and Human Services, which provides longer term assistance. They were extremely helpful when I first started my investigation and they provide the most complete summary of refugee resettlement resources and contacts I have found. I would start any inquiry by contact your local representative.
This system presents 3 issues to the goal of placing Syrian refugees in small communities with the support of local faith communities.
- Refugees must be place with 50 miles of a affiliated office, which means almost all refugee placement is limited to large metro areas
- The current system does not make it possible to specifically request refugees from a certain region to be sent to your area so that selecting Syrians to place within Christian communities is not clearly possible
- On arrival it is mandated that refugees receive a set allocation of various items (e.g. 4 bowls, 4 plates, 6 towels) which makes setting up a refugee family a very prescriptive process, more complex than it should be for local faith communities
These challenges are not insurmountable and I sincerely hope that the US will rise to the challenge of assisting those in need from around the world.
The United States has always been a welcoming place for refugees and they make up an essential part of our culture. From 1945 to 1952 we took in more than 137,000 Jewish refugees from Europe. In 1979, we provided sanctuary to 111,000 Vietnamese refugees and in 1980 almost doubled that number to 207,000. Around the same time, the United States took in more than 120,000 Cuban refugees during the Mariel boatlift, including more than 80,000 in one month alone.
I continue to believe the words I wrote in December when I began thinking about this topic.
The United States is a country of peace and tolerance which will look beyond religion to help our neighbours.
Many thanks to Kit and Dee for their help and support in working through this complex issue.