Americas

To Help Syrian Refugees, Highlight The Communities That Help Them


In Washington, the Syria conflict is a story told in zeros. A protracted civil war has claimed the lives of over 400,000 innocent men, women, and children. Over 1,500 of them were killed in chemical weapons attacks, one of which occurred just two weeks ago. At present, there are almost 4,800,000 registered Syrian refugees, and more are on the way. The U.S. government recently announced that it plans to take 10,000 of these Syrian refugees. These Syrians will be among the 110,000 refugees the United States will accept in 2017.

Image courtesy of U.S. Department of State, © 2013.

Image courtesy of U.S. Department of State, © 2013.

While governments tell stories in zeros, however, most Americans do not. A May 2016 survey from the Brookings Institution indicates wild disparities in the number of refugees Americans think the U.S. can absorb. The average American suggests just under 59,000, but half say less than 10,000, creating a highly skewed distribution. The survey indicates both a willingness among Americans to help and fears about the impact refugees will have on U.S. society. Americans worry about the scope of the problem—that the country will not be able to integrate refugees, or that some will have links to the Islamic State. Acting on these perceptions, thirty governors have asked the federal government to stop the settlement of Syrian refugees in their states. Overwhelming numbers combined with fears of terrorism create reluctance among Americans to get involved, especially at a time of economic and political uncertainty at home.

A better way to tell the story of Syrian refugees would be to think bottom-up rather than top-down. Across the United States, faith-based communities, charitable organizations, and local governments have already helped the U.S. absorb over 5,000 Syrian refugees. Absorbing refugees gives towns and cities a chance to highlight their communities, promote strong interfaith relations, and revitalize the community with a newfound sense of purpose. For refugees themselves, grassroots organizations provide more than a house or a job—they provide a support system and a connection between new arrivals and their communities. These connections help refugees work in their communities as accountants, programmers, and teachers, helping to power local economies. Along with extensive vetting from multiple federal agencies, they provide both safety from and a warning against any extremist tendencies. Perhaps that is why since the September 11 attacks, only three out of about 800,000 refugees in the U.S. have been arrested on terrorism charges.

 A local approach means telling a story whose protagonist is a community, not a calculator. Even if Americans would accept only five Syrian refugees in their town, this would translate to over 97,000 Syrian refugees nationally—nearly ten times what the United States is accepting now. Breaking the problem into smaller pieces would make seemingly overwhelming numbers much less threatening to Americans. It would also speak to the work that civil society organizations across the country are doing, together, to help those in need. These Americans, working together, are not only a solution to a problem—they embody the highest values we stand for as a country.

 While government action is critical to a solution for the refugee problem, it is the person-to-person assistance that underlies critical challenges of resettlement and integration. Focusing on this story—the real story—is the best way for the United States to show international leadership on refugees, protect its interests, and live up to its calling as a safe-haven for those who need it most.

 Scott Weiner is a Charged Affairs guest author and chair of the Middle East Discussion Group of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from George Washington University. The views reflected above are his own.

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