Civil war, terrorism—and now politics—pushing Syrian refugees

The trickle of refugees that left Syria when that country's Arab Spring-styled protests morphed in late 2011 into civil war, turned to a flood and then a torrent this year as hostilities escalated when euphemistically termed "outside actors" got more deeply involved.

With the government of President Bashar Assad controlling perhaps one-quarter of Syria but two-thirds of the population, and Kurdish separatists controlling two northern slivers of the country, most of Syria's eastern half is controlled by Islamic State, with collections of so-called "moderate" rebels -- i.e., anyone not named Islamic State that wants Assad gone -- hunkered down in the rest. There is little incentive for Syrians to stay in their homeland.

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Close to 11 million Syrians, or nearly half the country's population, have been displaced, according to Qatari news outlet Al Jazeera. Of that number, 3.8 million are refugees. Neighboring Turkey has 1.7 million, and Lebanon is nearing the million mark itself. Another neighbor, Jordan, also has accepted hundreds of thousands of refugees. Melkite Patriarch Gregorios III Laham estimated in 2013 that 450,000 Syrian Christians had already been displaced.

The exodus this year focused on Europe, where refugees have walked as far north as Finland seeking a new home. Many hearts were touched earlier this year by the photograph of a 3-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed ashore in Greece as he unsuccessfully tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea with his family. In light of the crisis, the United States, which had previously agreed to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees, said it would take 100,000.

Then came the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris, with Islamic State claiming credit. Almost overnight, whatever goodwill toward Syrian refugees that had been built up had all but vanished.

Thirty-one governors said they would not accept Syrian refugees; all but one of them are Republican. After Indiana Gov. Mike Pence issued an order withholding the transfer of federal funds for a Syrian refugee resettlement, one family was redirected to Connecticut. On Dec. 2, Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin of Indianapolis, which has the means to resettle a Syrian refugee family, met with Pence, and an Indiana nonprofit close to resettling another family filed suit, seeking a temporary injunction to block Pence's order.

"The meeting went well," said Indianapolis archdiocesan spokesman Greg Otolski as both the archbishop and governor stated their positions. Otolski said Archbishop Tobin was asked to redirect a Syrian refugee family with relatives in Indianapolis. He is "taking time to basically, prayerfully consider what he had to say and think about what to do," Otolski said, and get back to Pence with a decision. He added that in 40 years of resettling refugees in the archdiocese, "we've helped over 20,000 people. There shouldn't be any concerns."

The GOP-led House passed a bill before Thanksgiving that would essentially block the entry of Syrian and Iraqi refugees by adding extra layers of screening, although some Senate Republicans are having second thoughts about the bill. With Democrats ready to kill the bill via filibuster, one possibility was that the bill -- in some form -- would be inserted into a spending bill that needs passage by year's end.

The stigma of denying entry to refugees looms large. Beyond the specter of the World War II Japanese internment camps, the U.S. denied entry in 1939 to the MS St. Louis, a German ship with more than 900 Jewish refugees. The ship returned to Europe, where various countries took in the refugees before they got caught up in World War II; it was estimated that a quarter of the Jews on board later perished in Nazi death camps.

Then there's the matter of federal law. The Refugee Act of 1980 was created to provide a permanent and systematic procedure for the admission of refugees "of special humanitarian concern," and provides comprehensive and uniform provisions for effective refugee resettlement and absorption. President Barack Obama cited the law in telling the governors they have no authority to refuse refugees entering their states.

Diocesan Catholic agencies working with the U.S. bishops' Migration and Refugee Services have resettled Syrian refugees.

Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, received so many calls from reporters in the wake of the Paris attacks that it prepared a "FAQ" -- "frequently asked questions" -- sheet. In it, it said, "The current refugee crisis presents a challenge of balancing a legitimate concern for national security with Christ's call to welcome the stranger; the United States can continue to welcome refugees while continuing to ensure our own safety."

The FAQ sheet added that refugees cannot choose what country they will go to and, once eligible for U.S. resettlement, the Department of Homeland Security conducts interviews and background checks to verify the refugees' legitimacy. "This vetting process can take as long as two years, and is critical in determining that the refugees seeking to come to the United States are in serious, often life-threatening danger," it said.

David Hains, spokesman for the Diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina, recalled, "I had media calling me for months, wondering when we were going to get a Syrian refugee family" placed by the diocesan Catholic Charities agency. Finally, after "several years," Hains said, the family arrived in late October and early November. "They were willing to do some media, and it was gigantic. They had an interpreter and it was great coverage -- we had five TV stations," he added. "The next day, we had the Paris shootings."

After North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory "joined the other Republican governors in wanting to bar Syrian refugees," Hains told Catholic News Service, "the coverage flipped." But the editorial page editor of the Charlotte Observer, the state's largest newspaper, "came out in support on consecutive Sundays of resettling Syrian families, and of this family in particular," Hains said, while "we (in the diocese) remained steadfast in our support."

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston has resettled four Syrian refugee families. "Ever since this unfortunate publicity about these shootings, we've gotten a lot of calls of support, asking if they need someone to take Syrian refugees in their homes," said Marjean Perhot, director of refugee and immigration services for Catholic Charities.

Boston gets its cases from MRS. "We know basic details like date of birth, family composition, gender, marital status, ethnicity, medical issues if they have severe issues, the languages they speak," Perhot told CNS. "It's enough for us to prepare a place for them, get a culturally sensitive meal for them, some culturally sensitive groceries."

Arrivals can be disorienting. "Most of our folks are coming in late at night" after flying first to a U.S. airport that has special security screenings for arriving refugees, Perhot said. "The ideal is to have the apartment furnished. What they really want to do is take a shower. They've been traveling three days. All their stuff is jumbled up. Just that feeling of being clean in a new place. Taking a shower and getting some sleep. Basic orientation, basic instruction: how to lock the door, the sink, the stove, the fridge, that stuff, she added. "Hopefully, we're done by the time the sun comes up."

One interpreter used by Catholic Charities, herself a former refugee, wanted to make sure the new family knew how to work the shower faucets. "It was actually a very sweet thing," Perhot said.

Refugees coming to Catholic Charities in Boston get intensive-level services for 90 days, then case management service for eight months, after which they prepare for their adjustment-of-status, or "green card," application. Five years later, they can apply for citizenship.

Aden Batar, director of immigration and refugee resettlement for Catholic Community Services of Utah, was himself a Somali refugee 20 years ago. He and his wife brought their two children with them, and had three more after arriving. "This is the only place they have known," Batar said.

"Refugees can come here. They need a place to start," he added. "America is a country of compassion, it is not a country of fear. We are protecting Americans by doing all the security measures. No refugee has ever harmed an American .It hasn't happened, and it will not happen. All we see is success."

Immigration, according to Batar, is "what makes America great. It's the land of the free and the home of the brave. We should be terrified by those who are trying to do bad things. The Syrian refugees are 4 million right now, close to 5 million. If we don't support them or help them, who will? ... Should we leave them to die there, or should we step up and help? I think we can do better."

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