Despite governors' resistance, Syrian refugees find support in US

Mahmoud, who fled Syria with his family more than three years ago, was nervous for their well-being in Connecticut after the Paris attacks. But he's been pleasantly surprised by how his family has been treated.

Henry Gass
Staff at Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS) work at their office in New Haven, Conn., on Tuesday, Nov. 24. The organization helps refugees settle in the city.

Mahmoud had been living in this small Connecticut city almost two months to the day when the coordinated attacks across Paris killed 130 people.

He, his wife, and their three children had fled Homs, Syria, more than three years before. Now, more than two dozen US governors, as well as the US House, were calling for the vetting process for Syrian refugees to be toughened so that terrorists don't slip into the United States.

That response to the attacks made Mahmoud so nervous for his family's well-being that he told his daughter to wear a hat to school instead of a hijab to cover her hair.

Others were concerned about a potential backlash against Syrian refugees in the US as well.

“The negative publicity and the horrendous things these governors are saying, it does affect public opinion,” says Chris George, executive director of Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS), a nonprofit organization in New Haven, Conn., that helped Mahmoud and his family settle in the city. “We are worried there could be individuals who make life unpleasant for refugees.”

Yet despite the concerns, US organizations like IRIS that are working to resettle Syrian refugees are confident that America’s welcoming disposition will prevail in the coming months. Already, in fact, some organizations say they're getting a level of support from communities that may mean that opposition from some governors won't matter.

It appears, at least anecdotally, that so far a broad public backlash against Syrian refugees simply isn't happening.

That's what Mahmoud – who is using a pseudonym for fear of reprisals against relatives back in the Middle East – found in terms of his daughter's hijab. When they approached the school about it, he was pleasantly surprised.

“She was told that hats aren’t allowed at school,” says Mahmoud, speaking through an interpreter to the Monitor. “When I went to the school, they said a hijab is fine, that they respect them in the school.”

A teacher added that the hijab gave his daughter “character,” he says.

So far, concerns about Syrian refugees appear to have directly affected only one case: Last week a family destined for Indiana, which has indicated it will no longer accept Syrian refugees, was redirected to Connecticut.

Mr. George – whose organization works with Episcopal Migration Ministries, one of nine aid agencies that contracts with the State Department to resettle refugees – sees reason for that case being handled that way: “I would’ve done same thing if I was [in Indiana], because [it was not clear] what this family was going to encounter” there.

But he says the case should not become a routine occurrence. “The State Department and the national organizations that are involved in refugee resettlement don’t want this to be a precedent,” adds George, who notes that the screening process for refugees is rigorous, comprehensive, and lengthy.

Next door to Indiana, Ohio has also indicated it doesn't want Syrian refugees. But there's at least one example of residents in that state showing tolerance.

Janelle Metzger heads Water for Ishmael, a nonprofit organization in Toledo, Ohio, that offers free language lessons for new arrivals and day care for younger children. She was concerned about the 60 Syrian refugees already living in Toledo – a relatively large number for a country that has resettled about 2,200 Syrian refugees since the war in Syria began.

So she decided to conduct an experiment. Ms. Metzger, a Christian, put on a hijab, walked around Toledo for a day, and gauged the reaction. “I didn’t want to tell [male Syrians] that it’s OK to send their wives out unless I knew it was OK,” she says.

She says she was “really pleased by how our city did on that little test.”

“The majority of the city was pleasant with me. They treated me with kindness and respect,” she adds. “I feel like our city is being very tolerant, I would say beyond tolerant.”

In New Haven, workers at IRIS make sure to talk to residents before they resettle a refugee in the neighborhood, George says.

“When I used to look for housing for refugees, I would always check out the neighborhood to make sure it seemed welcoming and friendly,” he adds. “I would say, ‘Hey, we might be putting a refugee family here,’ and gauge people’s reactions."

The response has been favorable, he says: "It’s always positive.”

George notes that IRIS has even seen "an amazing outpouring of sympathy and support" from Indianians following the recent relocation.

Other towns in the US have also shown a willingness to host Syrian refugees. Dozens of US mayors – including several in states where governors are not welcoming Syrian refugees – have come out in support of resettlement.

Yes, state agencies could deny services to Syrian refugees if the governor orders them to. But there may be enough community support to continue resettlements should that happen, says Will Haney, a spokesman for Church World Service – another of the nine resettlement organizations that contracts with the State Department.

“Even if services are restricted in certain areas, even if we have to cross that hurdle, we’re working with local communities, churches, individuals,” he says. “Refugee resettlement has always been a public and private partnership, and even if we don’t have public support, we still have the private arm that’s willing to help.”

Since coming to America, Mahmoud has experienced a number of pleasant surprises in addition to the one about his daughter's hijab. When his wife rides the bus, men let her take their seat. There are two families in his neighborhood who, even though he doesn't speak English, "are very nice to me."

“This culture is just as welcoming as the culture where I grew up,” he says. “I thought it would be different, but it’s not that different.”

As part of the screening process, Mahmoud and his family were subject to a half-dozen interviews with various international and US agencies, he says, including one where the whole family had to answer questions simultaneously to make sure their answers were the same. There was also one with the Department of Homeland Security where each question had to be answered instantly.

Now that he’s here, Mahmoud says he’s most focused on securing a good future for his children. He has struggled to find a job because of his poor English, a back problem, and not having a car. He hopes to find work related to his profession back home, where he was a chef, but says he’ll settle for anything at the moment.

He says he doesn’t think the current controversy involving the governors will have an enduring impact on his family's fortunes in the US.

“America is a diverse country that is friendly and welcoming,” he says. “American people are a kind and welcoming people, so I don’t think this is going to have a long-term effect.”

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