As war and violence continue to rage in Iraq and Syria, hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled their homelands to find security, regardless of what the future may hold. Refugees making their way toward Europe and the United States are seeking a better, safer life, refugee advocates said.
Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan has resettled 400 refugees in the state and wants to help more in collaboration with federal and state officials. Jeralda Hattar, director of refugee and immigration services for Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan, said misconceptions about the process persist. “The majority of these cases have been Iraqi refugees. So far, we’ve only settled two Syrian families,” Hattar told The Michigan Catholic, newspaper of the Detroit Archdiocese. Nearly 75 percent of Syrian refugees are women and children, Hattar said, and of those who are men, a large majority are older. In November, 31 state governors said their states would not welcome any more Syrian refugees because of security concerns. Calls from some Americans to accept only Christian refugees into the United States are unrealistic, she added.
“That’s never going to happen,” Hattar said. “What the Christian community needs to keep in mind is whatever you advocate nationally that is against accepting Muslim refugees ultimately affects both Muslim and Christian refugees regardless because the federal government will not distinguish in their security process.”
The Obama administration plans to resettle an additional 15,000 refugees, and Hattar said Catholic Charities has the capacity to accommodate 1,100 refugees in Michigan.
For now, the agency has resettled 294 out of a projected 650 refugees for fiscal year 2015. Logistical constraints and delays in the security screening process have slowed the flow.
Concerns have been raised about the vetting process, especially after French authorities learned that one of the extremists who participated in coordinated attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 possessed identification papers from a refugee checkpoint in Greece.
When refugees apply for asylum, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees provides camps for temporary living. Before arriving in the United States, the U.S. Department of State, Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation vet each candidate in a process that can take up to 24 months to complete.
Once cleared, refugees are assigned to organizations like the U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services, which study each case to determine where to resettle an individual or families. When M.R.S. sends a case to Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan, staff members interview the newcomers to learn where they want to live, what language and work skills they have and whether they have family in the area who might assist in their relocation.
“Our goal is to work with every individual refugee to get them to the point of self-sufficiency,” Hattar said. “We consider what living preferences they might have, and if there are people of the same culture in the area. But we do promote diversity because we don’t want to create ‘refugee communities’ that would not be economically viable.”
As more refugees come into the area amid increasing debate among lawmakers, Hattar encourages local Catholics to show support.
“I would encourage all Catholics to review Catholic social teaching, read the many verses of the Bible concerning people on the run and Jesus calling on us to help a stranger. Contact your politicians, educate yourself,” Hattar said.
“For those who want to do more, volunteer,” she added.
“We need people to mentor refugees as they transition into life in America. Help us make our community a welcoming place and encourage them in the integration. But most of all, be open-minded.”