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My Turn: Needs of Syrian refugees mirror our own

Last modified: 12/24/2015 12:11:31 AM
For many, the holiday season is a time of warmth and security – a time to gather with family and friends, reflect on the past year and give back. However, as the last Republican debate of 2015 and the overall public dialogue reflects, these feeling of generosity and community do not necessarily extend to refugees who are desperate for security here in the United States. While the recently approved omnibus spending bill thankfully did not include language that would effectively end the resettlement process for Syrian and Iraqi refugees, anti-refugee and Muslim sentiment is still rampant across this country.

Syrian refugees look to America as a safe haven from the violence that has filled this tense year, spilling into Lebanon, Paris and closer to home. That same violence has destroyed their homes, broken up their families and has caused them to uproot their lives to seek safety. The needs and desires of Syrian refugees mirror our own: the chance to send their children to school, to drink clean water, to have food on the table, to contribute to their community and to have a safe place to call home.

New Hampshire and the United States as a whole have a proud legacy of protecting people in need. We cannot abandon that now.

I grew up in Walpole and now work for Oxfam, a nonprofit agency engaged in refugee issues. It has been painful to see the Syrian families we work with every day in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon – people who have fled terror and violence—characterized as dangerous perpetrators amid misinformation and fear. It is frustrating that politicians, including New Hampshire’s governor and representatives, called for a freeze on resettling Syrian refugees. They questioned whether the nation’s refugee resettlement screening process is strong enough to keep Americans safe, which sounds like a valid concern until you realize how strict that process already is.

Refugees already face multiple levels of background checks and investigations, making them the most scrutinized people entering our country.

First, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees ensures that each person has a legitimate claim to be classified as a refugee and that he or she meets at least one of the criteria for resettlement in the United States. Less than 1 percent of those screened by UNHCR are deemed qualified to undergo America’s own rigorous process, which includes in-person interviews, biometric testing, background checks, cross-checking against lists held by all of our security agencies and more. The process often takes two years or more to complete.

The U.S. system gives priority to women, children, people with disabilities and those at heightened risk of persecution due to religion or political affiliation. More than half of the Syrian refugees admitted to the United States have been children.

The United States’ rigorous vetting process, rightly aimed at safeguarding the American public, has allowed for the resettlement of fewer than 2,500 Syrian refugees since the conflict began in 2011, including just 250 people in November. These numbers are too low – representing a tiny fraction of the more than 4 million who have fled Syria’s brutal conflict. Yet the needs are increasingly urgent: Many Syrians face life-or-death struggles to survive another brutal winter in the region without proper shelter, food, health care or other necessities.

It’s natural to be scared of the threats facing the world today. But, after assessing the risks and the facts, it becomes clear that welcoming Syrian refugees does not put us in jeopardy and is the right thing to do. Some U.S. leaders cite recent events as reason to freeze Syrian refugee resettlement, but we must keep resurfacing the facts: Syrian refugees have played no role in these attacks. In fact, we share a common foe with those who are seeking refuge here, and a system in place to keep that foe from entering America as refugees.

It has been a great relief to see some politicians and religious leaders of all faiths speaking out in support of Syrian refugees. But there is much to do to change minds and to show support for the resettlement program as it will undoubtedly face continued scrutiny in 2016. You can call your member of Congress and tell him or her that you want Syrian refugees to be welcomed to the United States and in New Hampshire. If our leaders hear from the people they aim to protect, let’s hope they will extend a helping hand to Syrian refugees in their hour of need.

(Elizabeth Stevens is a Walpole native and the humanitarian communications officer for the international nonprofit Oxfam America, which supports Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Europe.)


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