Unwelcoming cities: Chasm grows in our nation’s reaction to refugees

Farah Ibrahim came to Charlottesville in 2008 with her infant daughter as a refugee from Iraq. She is currently a caseworker with the IRC and is a U.S. citizen. Submitted photo Farah Ibrahim came to Charlottesville in 2008 with her infant daughter as a refugee from Iraq. She is currently a caseworker with the IRC and is a U.S. citizen. Submitted photo

In the week since terrorists waged the largest attack in Paris since World War II, sympathy to the French has been pretty much universal. To Syrians fleeing slaughter in their country, not so much.

On the evening of November 20, two Syrian refugees flew into Charlottesville after Kansas Governor Sam Brownback uninvited them.

“That’s so sad and so unnecessary,” says Charlottesville International Rescue Committee Executive Director Harriet Kuhr. “States technically can’t bar people from their borders because it’s a federal program, but they can delay services. They can make them unwelcome.”

Reaction in Virginia captures the gulf in how this country is handling the idea of Syrian refugees. On November 17, 5th District Congressman Robert Hurt issued a statement of support for the French—and of concerns about admitting refugees.

“Given that our screening process is not nearly as adequate nor effective as it should be, it is imperative that we stop the intake of Syrian refugees at this time,” says Hurt. Two days later, the House voted to add requirements that the heads of U.S. security and intelligence agencies certify that refugees are not a threat.

By the end of the week, 27 Republican governors sent a letter to Obama asking him to suspend resettlement of the 10,000 Syrians he wanted to admit, citing vetting concerns.

Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe did not join the governors who want to slam the door on refugees, and his office issued a statement that says, “Every refugee who is settled in the U.S. undergoes intensive security screening, and the governor has asked Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian J. Moran to ensure that every proper precaution is taken to keep Virginians safe.”

“Only three states where IRC has offices are still accepting Syrian refugees,” says Kuhr, listing Virginia, California and Washington.

While Roanoke Mayor David Bowers suggested that the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II was a reason to suspend incoming Syrian refugees, Mayor Satyendra Huja issued a statement November 19 reaffirming an October 5 City Council proclamation that Charlottesville is a “welcoming city.”

He said, “In light of disconcerting developments here in Virginia and around the country regarding Syrian refugees, I reaffirm the principles and commitments of the October 5 declaration, which was passed unanimously. I am joined in this statement by our two new City Councilors-elect, Wes Bellamy and Mike Signer.”

His statement has drawn criticism.

“My problem here is one of governance,” says former Jefferson Area Tea Party head Carole Thorpe. “Mayor Huja said it was passed unanimously.” Two days after City Councilor Kristin Szakos read the proclamation in October, Vice Mayor Dede Smith said on the “Schilling Show” on WINA she knew nothing about the proclamation before the council meeting, although she supported it. Councilor Bob Fenwick says he supports it, as well.

It turns out City Council doesn’t really vote on proclamations, according to Huja. “City Council supported it,” he says. And for Thorpe’s calling out his statement that it was passed unanimously, says Huja, “What difference does it make?”

“I think I’ve caught the mayor being disingenuous,” says Thorpe, who adds that proclamations can be used as political tools, and that one delves into international matters. “I don’t agree with proclamations, and that particular one I have issues with,” she says.

Charlottesville has had an International Rescue Committee office since 1998, and during that time it’s resettled around 3,000 people, according to Kuhr. “Refugees are the most carefully vetted immigrants that come here,” she says. They go through a one- to two-year process with security checks, health checks and in-person interviews with Homeland Security, she says, adding that the flood of refugees happening in Europe is not happening here.

And they have to be certified by the United Nations. “They have to have a well-founded claim of persecution to be certified a refugee,” says Kuhr. And people coming from Syria and Iraq have multiple background checks, she says.

“The part that boggles my mind is people thinking these are terrorists,” says Kuhr. “These people are victims of terrorists. They’re fleeing ISIS.” Syria has 4 million citizens who have fled the country, and another 6 million who are displaced inside Syria, where civil war has raged since 2011, and ISIS declared Raqqa its capital.

“That’s a huge displacement, 10 million people not living in their own homes,” says Kuhr. “People don’t do that for fun.”

She says there are much easier ways for terrorists to enter the country than the refugee program. “Every day there are people coming as tourists with no vetting at all,” says Kuhr.

Last week, before the two latest Syrians arrived, Virginia had 25 Syrians in the state, including a family of six that came to Charlottesville in August, says Kuhr. Nationwide, there are around 2,000 Syrians, a number the Obama administration wanted to up to 10,000 following the disturbing image in September of a dead Syrian baby washed up on a Turkish beach.

The message that Americans have to do something to help has turned into, “We’re endangering Americans,” says Kuhr.

She seeks to reassure terrified Americans. “We resettle more refugees than any other country,” says Kuhr. “We have the experience to do it safely.”

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