Displaced Syrian refugees who settle in the United States will likely establish their new lives in areas already home to large Syrian communities, like California, Michigan and Arizona, according to a refugee assistance agency that works with the U.S. State Department.
“Those would be likely places because there would be ethnic community language and culture support and we know right now, nationally, Syrian-Americans are actively offering assistance to their countrymen if they are able to get to the United States,” said Stacie Blake of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
Organizations of Syrian-American doctors and engineers are among those who publicly offered to assist the incoming Middle Eastern refugees.
USCRI is one of nine domestic resettlement agencies that works with the U.S. government to welcome and resettle refugees.
The State Department defines a refugee as someone who has fled their home country and cannot return due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.
The United States took in 70,000 refugees for fiscal year 2015, the same as the year before. This year the number could reach 75,000. President Barack Obama said the U.S. will accept 10,000 Syrians in the next year.
Since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, the U.S. has taken in 1,584 refugees from that country. According to the U.S. State Department, most of these Syrians have settled in Texas, California, Michigan, Illinois, Arizona and Florida.
When the newest Syrian refugees arrive, they’ll be greeted by someone like Blake.
When we spoke with her, she was in North Carolina helping settle a newly-arrived refugee family from the Democratic Republic of Congo that spent seven years in a Kenya refugee camp.
The likely jobs for the adults in the family would be in housekeeping at a hotel or work at a large meat processing plant in the community where they are being resettled. As soon they start working, usually within the first month or two, the family begins paying its own rent, utilities and other expenses.
“The number-one outcome of the resettlement program is that people are self-sufficient within 90 days of arrival,” said Blake, “and that’s regardless of if they speak English, regardless of if they have trauma, have been tortured, cultural differences. It’s the same expectations for everyone.”
Sometimes they do make use of public assistance, she said, as is common with people on the lowest rungs of American society, which refugees usually are when they first arrive.
But Blake says her group enjoys a high success rate. After 180 days, 71 percent of those in employment programs are working and self sufficient for themselves or their families.
USCRI resettlement coordinator Feven Fessehaye sees herself as an example of a refugee success story. Originally from Eritrea, she became a refugee in Kenya, living there for three years before coming to the U.S. at the end of 2009.
She says the deep sense of happiness and gratitude she felt at being able to come to the United States is difficult to put into words.
“It’s a new beginning,” she said. “The things that you lost in your country when you became a refugee – when you lose everything you were planning to do in your life – but then you get hope that you can start your life again as a new person, but free also, in this free country. I have to words to explain that. I was so happy.”
Fessehaye started volunteering with USCRI and eventually became a full-time employee. After becoming a citizen in January of this year and recently becoming engaged to marry a native-born American man, Fessehaya considers herself a patriotic American.
“This is my new country,” she said. “America gave me a chance and a feeling to belong in my country now. I’m American. That’s what I believe and I’m loyal to America.”
There has been some push-back on the president’s plan to admit Syrian refugees, including from Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interest.
“Middle Eastern nations must take the lead in resettling their region’s refugees,” he said in a recent statement. “The goal of responsible refugee resettlement should be to relocate displaced persons as close to their homes as possible and to seek their return to their country of origin in more stable conditions.”
But people like Blake believe the old adage that America’s diversity makes the country stronger. She likes to remind people that famed physicist Albert Einstein was a refugee and that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was of Syrian origin.
Accepting refugees, she says, is an important part of the American story.
“Folks fleeing religious persecution were some the first people to come to this country and begin to organize themselves into what is the United States today, so that’s who we are as a nation,” she said. “Some of our values about freedom and dignity can be translated into offering support and humanitarian aid to folks who have no other options. Resettlement is not a first option; resettlement is a last option.”