By Kathryn Karnaze, Medill, Immigrant Connect
Suzanne Akhras Sahloul started the Syrian Community Network in 2015 in the hope that Chicago would come together to give Syrian refugees the support they weren’t getting, especially since half the refugees who’ve fled Syria are children in need of education. The other half need jobs, according to the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency that gives refugees critical care and shelter before they’re resettled.
Despite President Trump’s recent executive orders putting the refugee admissions program on hold for a minimum of four months, Sahloul believes that “in time, because of public pressure, there will be an overturn because there’s so much sympathy right now,” Sahloul said. “We have to get the pressure on.”
After being granted refugee status and coming to the United States, refugees have to wait a year to receive a green card that gives them lawful permanent residency and another five years to get citizenship.
In 2016, the United States admitted more refugees than any other year since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001: nearly 85,000, including 39,000 Muslim refugees, the highest number on record, according to the Pew Research Center. Under then-President Obama, the refugee ceiling increased from 70,000 to 85,000, with a plan to increase it further to 110,000 in 2017. During the 1990s, the number of admitted refugees exceeded 100,000 per year six times. The only time the annual number was double that, more than 200,000, was in 1980 when then-President Carter signed the U.S. Refugee Act and established the Office of Refugee Resettlement in large part in response to the waves of refugees coming to the U.S. in the ’70s from Vietnam and Cambodia.
In 2016, the US resettled about 12,000 Syrians; Canada resettled almost 40,000 and Germany resettled about 41,000. according to the Migration Policy Institute,
Since Trump began his presidency in early 2017, the number of refugees, in particular Syrian refugees, has been open for reconsideration. In suspending refugee admissions for 120 days “while security procedures are reviewed,” the president’s executive orders have also declared that the total number of refugees allowed into the country during fiscal 2017 is to be cut from 110,000 to 50,000.
The United States tends to do a good job in selecting a broader range of refugees in regards to education and income backgrounds, said Mark Kaplan, who manages the Bezazian Public Library which is located in Uptown and serves a cross-section of refugees in Chicago. Countries like Canada, he noted, are much more selective about the education levels of the refugees who seek admission.
The United States’ resettlement process takes anywhere between 18 and 24 months due to a review of applications by the State Department, the requirement of interviews, and medical screenings.
Additionally, according to the American Immigration Council, the top priority for refugee resettlement is for individuals who have “compelling persecution needs” or “for whom no other durable solution exists.” Education and income levels are not even considered.
Canada, on the other hand, in late 2015, limited refugee resettlement admissions to children, women, or families, banning all unaccompanied men due to security fears, according to CBC News, Canada’s premier broadcast outlet.
However, because education or income levels isn’t taken into consideration in the US, the jobs Syrian refugees get aren’t often the cream of the crop. And the refugees who have the education to be working higher paying jobs, face a difficult language barrier.
“We have to convince them to take the starter job they may not want,” said Sahloul. “We tell them their first job is not their last job.”
Galya Ben-Arieh, the founding Director of the Center for Forced Migration Studies at Northwestern University’s Buffet Institute, works regularly with Syrian refugees and believes that refugee resettlement agencies aren’t doing everything they can to make a Syrian refugee’s transition as seamless as they could.
For example, refugees have to pay back the International Organization for Migration (IOM) for their plane tickets once they resettle in the US and begin working. The bill can be more than $1,000 per person in the family.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement provides a rent stipend of about $1,000 to the cooperating refugee resettlement agencies to help the refugees get situated. It is intended to cover three months of housing. Each refugee resettlement agency differs in how long, if at all, they provide additional stipends for rent, after which the refugees are responsible for paying their own rent all, and according to a 2015 U.S. News & World Reports story, the program gets no special treatment in finding affordable housing.
“Refugee resettlement agencies are full to capacity and they really are just there for the first month, which means that you’re taking minimum wage jobs (to cover rent) which ends up with you being in a cycle of poverty for years to come,” said Ben-Arieh. “Many refugees are coming here already a Bachelor’s degree and a professional background. But the biggest challenge is they have to pay rent from the moment they come and it’s expensive so you can’t go on and try to figure out how to make your professional career work here.”
There is an alternative path for Syrians who seek admission into the US after fleeing their homeland. They can arrive without the formal vetted refugee process and seek asylum through the courts. Far fewer have chosen this route.
In reporting on this alternative in 2015, Al Jazeera America concluded that backlogs in the US immigration courts have resulted in longer waits than the formal, vetted refugee process. Citing US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) data, the report put the backlog at about 100,000. During that time, asylum-seekers are allowed to stay in the US legally, but get no federal benefits, no stipends, and cannot work legally for the first six months.
In Europe, where far more Syrians have sought refuge, most use the asylum process in the courts there. In Germany, for instance, asylum is a right protected by Germany’s Constitution, and asylum seekers are entitled under their Asylum Seekers’ Benefits Act, to food, accommodation, heating, clothing, and healthcare.
For those Syrians who do use the asylum path in the US, Ben-Arieh said she doesn’t believe the legal status of those here will change under the Trump administration.
“The ones that I work with had questions for me just about what does this mean for our lives,” said Ben-Arieh. For them, it’s hard to predict what Trump’s policies mean for their likelihood of being granted asylum by the courts.