Safe Haven: What happens when Syrian refugees come to Austin

By Shelley Seale

When the world thinks of Austin, they think of coming here to have a great time. But they have learned that they will find help here, too, when they need it.

These are the words of Austin Mayor Steve Adler. When Hurricane Katrina forced thousands to evacuate New Orleans in 2005, our city welcomed them with open arms. When children fleeing gang violence in Central America massed on our southern border in 2014, many Austin groups rushed to help.

“This is what great cities do,” says Mayor Adler. “Though we by no means are not and have never been perfect in this regard, Austin draws strength from its tolerance and inclusiveness, and this adds to our security. When the rest of the world is swirling around us, we know who we are in this regard and will remain steadfast in our values.”

But for refugees fleeing from Syria, our city may not be so welcoming. While many residents don’t think twice about offering the same sort of refuge and assistance to Syrian refugees, others are firmly against it. The crisis and its ensuing controversy, of course, is one that is raging across the country.

Mayor Adler, for example, stands in direct opposition with Texas Governor Greg Abbott. On November 16, 2015, Governor Abbott issued a letter to President Barack Obama following the terrorist attacks in Paris, which stated that the State of Texas would not be accepting any Syrian refugees. He went on to urge President Obama to reconsider allowing the refugees into the United States at all.

“A Syrian ‘refugee’ appears to have been part of the Paris terror attack,” stated Governor Abbott’s letter. “American humanitarian compassion could be exploited to expose Americans to similar deadly danger. The reasons for such concerns are plentiful.”

Although the Syrian passport found near the body of one of the Paris terrorists later proved to be fake, and no Syrian nationals have been found to be involved in the attacks, safety concerns and the potential infiltration of terrorists are the main reasons cited by those who support the governor’s stance against accepting refugees from Syria. Many do not believe that the federal government has the necessary background information to conduct proper security checks on Syrian nationals, as Abbott’s letter to Obama claimed.

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As far as Texas goes, Abbott says that the threat posed to the state by ISIS is very real. “ISIS claimed credit last May when two terrorist gunmen launched an attack in Garland, Texas. Less than two weeks later, the FBI arrested an Iraqi-born man in North Texas and charged him with lying to federal agents about traveling to Syria to fight with ISIS. And in 2014, when I served as Texas attorney general, we participated in a Joint Terrorism Task Force that arrested two Austin residents for providing material support to terrorists—including ISIS.”

Governor Abbott therefore concluded that Texas could not participate in any program that would result in Syrian refugees being resettled in the state. He was far from the only governor to do so; at least two dozen other governors have made the same stance for their states.

Other leaders, such as Mayor Adler, as well as many Austin citizens, decry this position on a humanitarian basis, and say that the threat of terrorism in the refugee situation is very small or nonexistent.

It’s an issue that has divided the country. A Bloomberg poll released on November 18, 2015 showed that 53 percent of Americans do not want any Syrian refugees admitted into the country. Twenty-eight percent were in favor of continuing the resettlement program under the current screening process, while 11 percent were only willing to accept Christian refugees from Syria. Eight percent responded as “unsure.”

Refugee Services of Texas blog quote

Texas is more evenly divided. An online poll conducted by ISideWith.com shows that 51 percent of Texans responded “yes” to the question, “Should the U.S. accept refugees from Syria?” while 49 percent responded “no.” It may come as no surprise, however, that the Austin poll is more skewed; 70 percent responded “yes” and 30 percent responded “no” to the same question, with a total of just over 3,000 votes as of December 15, 2015.

“All of us share the same concern about safety from terrorism,” says Aaron E. Rippenkroeger, President & CEO, Refugee Services of Texas, Inc. “But those of us who work closely with refugees arriving through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program feel that the greater risks are elsewhere. By definition, refugees are people fleeing life- threatening danger in their home country, and seeking safety and security in another. People who come to the U.S. as refugees care deeply about the safety and security of the United States and the American people. They want to be safe, they want a fresh start and they want what is best for their children. That is why they are here, and this applies to Syrian refugees as well.”

Rippenkroeger adds that the agencies that work with refugees, such as his, also care deeply about the safety and security of both their clients, and the country. “No single act of terror has ever been committed in the U.S. by an individual who came through the refugee program. If we are really concerned about security, it seems counter-intuitive to start with the individuals who are already the most scrutinized people that come to our country.” He points out that unlike others who come in and out of the U.S., refugees go through 20 layers and two years-plus of security checks and clearances, including extensive in-person interviews, biography mapping, biometric analyses, fingerprinting, and more.

“We also feel that welcoming refugees from across the globe is in our national interest and makes us stronger and safer in the long run. It helps us with our international partners, strengthens diversity in our country and exhibits the ideals we aim to project across the world through the successful integration of those we welcome. America setting the example by being a thriving functional multicultural beacon makes us stronger and safer, and you can’t achieve that if you are singling out and rejecting a specific population or nationality.”

Governor Abbott went so far as to direct the Texas Health & Human Services Commission’s Refugee Resettlement Program to not participate in the resettlement of any Syrian refugees in Texas, and in fact threatened to sue agencies such as Refugee Services of Texas. Days later, the State of Texas filed a lawsuit against the International Rescue Committee and the federal government; although a federal judge denied the state’s request for an order immediately stopping the refugees from entering Texas, saying that the state’s evidence of danger was based on “largely speculative hearsay.”

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The ruling paved the way for several Syrian families to resettle in Texas — 21 refugees, including a dozen children, began arriving in Dallas and Houston. And as Rippenkroeger points out, following the order to specifically exclude Syrians from their federally-funded services may well violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Worldwide, more than four million Syrians have been displaced so far. Refugee Services of Texas welcomed approximately 70 Syrian refugees to Texas through its resettlement program earlier this year. Like so many who have fled the daily threat of violence and persecution, these refugees left everything behind — family, friends, and property — without knowing who or what will remain after the violence ends.

Other refugees living in Austin know first-hand what the struggle entails. Khalad grew up in Baghdad, Iraq. As a Sunni Muslim, she witnessed and experienced hatred and violence between extremists in both the Sunni and Shiite sects, living amidst kidnapping, torture, and murder for most of their lives. Khalad and her husband also received numerous death threats. They eventually fled to Syria where she gave birth to a baby boy. However, they were not authorized to work in Syria, so she made the tough decision to return to the danger in Iraq, where she could work and send money back to her husband in Syria.

Finally, Khalad’s family was granted refugee status and received the news that they would be resettled to the United States. In April of 2009 she boarded a plane with her husband and her baby in her arms and came to Fort Worth, Texas. Her family was placed in a low-income apartment complex that was filled with residents who only spoke Spanish, so finding someone to assist her and her family to locate a nearby grocery store or means of transportation was often challenging. When they first arrived they had no car, little money, and little food. It was a desperate and lonely scramble for survival.

Eventually, with the help of the Refugee Services of Texas (RST), Khalad was offered a position as a resettlement caseworker in the agency’s Fort Worth office. Despite the early challenges, today Khalad continues to be a beacon of hope for her coworkers and clients at RST.

“Once you have looked death in the eye, every single day is a blessing; the light at the end of the tunnel has never turned off,” Khalad says.

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