Saturday morning, a few days after the terrorist attacks in Paris last November, Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg of Beth Am in Baltimore used his Shabbat sermon time to invite an open discussion about the brutal and tragic incidents that occurred throughout the city and their aftermath. Several people expressed their anger and concern about the way Syrian Muslim refugees — those fleeing possible persecution and fear of death — were repeatedly linked with terrorist activities in the rhetoric of some politicians and in the media. They also voiced concern about an ensuing climate of fear and hateful sentiment aimed at refugees that could spread from that portrayal.
The discussion resulted in a small group of congregants meeting with employees of the International Rescue Committee’s Baltimore office on Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown a few weeks later to learn what they might do to welcome and assist Syrian refugees who are expected to arrive in Baltimore in the coming year.
Congregant Wendy Schelew, who has a decades-long history volunteering and working in refugee resettlement in her native Toronto, went to IRC, she explained, because “as a Jew I really felt it was a moral obligation to help people who didn’t have a home and that we could not relive the history of the second world war and turn away from people in need.” She added that though she has her concerns about the U.S. State Department’s ability to screen refugees adequately to weed out potential terrorists, “I believe that most of these people are not security threats. They’re homeless just like so many of our [ancestors] were, and they deserve a chance to start over in a new place.”
The group learned that IRC helped resettle more than 800 refugees last year; 35 of them are Syrians, but there is no information on how many will be resettled in Maryland in 2016. The organization provides clients with up to eight months of case management support when they arrive to help them stabilize and navigate a new life. Refugees are met at the airport, and ensured simply furnished affordable housing — the first month’s rent is paid for — and a first warm meal, and their children are enrolled in school; each new arrival must attend a five-day orientation that covers details such as instructions for riding the bus, getting groceries and finding English language classes, and everyone receives a full medical screening within a week or so of arrival. Then IRC’s employment services team steps in to help the adults find work.
“That’s the big ask by the U.S. government,” said Ruben Chandrasekar, executive director of the International Rescue Committee’s Baltimore and Silver Spring offices. “We welcome you but you’ve got to work, to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. So we help folks find their first job. Then usually within three to four months 85 percent of our clients are working and paying their bills.”
Staffers at IRC cited several large local employers who regularly return to them seeking employees, impressed by the pool of new immigrants’ work ethic. About 12 percent of Maryland’s population is foreign born, yet immigrants own and run about 22 percent of small businesses, which are viewed as economic generators. Currently there are sizable communities of Burmese, Somali, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Congolese and Iraqi populations throughout the greater Baltimore area.
The available resources and capacity of resettlement agencies determines the number of refugees assigned to a city. About 1,800 Syrian refugees arrived in the United States in 2015 and the largest Syrian community is located in Toledo, Ohio. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Syria’s civil war remains the single biggest generator worldwide of both new refugees and continuing mass internal and external displacement.
“The reality is that Syrians, because they’re a new migrant group and because of the lengthy vetting process, we’ll be seeing very few coming to Baltimore in the coming year,” said Beth Am member Joe Nathanson, who went on the IRC visit and has an extensive background in economic urban planning for refugee communities.
With nearly 60 million refugees worldwide, and 4.5 million of whom are Syrians — one quarter of that country’s population — Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, the organization formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, called the Syrian displacement “the biggest refugee crisis” since World War II.
“Frankly, the U.S. response is disproportionately low compared to other refugee crises,” he said.
Hetfield noted that 240,000 refugees were admitted to the United States from Vietnam in 1980; by contrast, just 10,000 Syrians are slated for admission this year.
In 2016, for a person to gain refugee status and legally enter the United States, according to the Department of Homeland Security, he or she must first apply through the United Nations High Commission of Refugees. Less than 1 percent of those applying achieve resettlement. A person must prove he’s been driven from his home “due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion,” as stated in the 1951 Refugee Convention, which was created in response to the Holocaust and to prevent countries from denying refugees entry and sending them back to life-threatening situations.
If an applicant clears this first step, his or her documents are sent to the State Department, where more information is collected and security screenings are done via the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. Syrian applicants get additional interviews and screenings called the Syrian In-House Review, which could include more cross-referencing with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ fraud detection and national security directories. Biometric screenings, including fingerprinting and often iris scans, are collected from all applicants and are crosschecked with databases at the FBI, DHS and the Department of Defense. If the applicant passes all of these screenings, he or she submits to health screenings and is enrolled in cultural orientation classes while information continues to be checked against terrorist databases to ensure no new intelligence has turned up since the application process began.
In total, the vetting process can last 12 to 24 months from application to arrival here, and it’s considered the most rigorous of any country in the world. However, in November, the House of Representatives voted 289 to 137 in favor of a bill that would further tighten the vetting process for Iraqis and Syrians.
The bill was defeated in the Senate on Jan. 20.
Still, FBI Director James Comey testified in October that “a number of people who were of serious concern” have slipped through screenings, including two Iraqis arrested on terrorism-related charges, as reported in The Washington Post. “There’s no doubt that was the product of a less than excellent vetting,” Comey said. “I can’t sit here and offer anybody an absolute assurance that there’s no risk associated with this.”
Hetfield compared the Syrian vetting process with the scrutiny of the Iraqi and Afghan vetting process, but “we actually occupied those countries and had access to their criminal records to use during the screening processes, and we don’t have that luxury with Syrians.”
“But security is not a new issue for refugees,” Hetfield added, citing the more than 400,000 Soviet Jews that came here from what was “probably the most fearsome [foe] that the United States has ever had.
“There was plenty of opportunity for mischief by the Soviets … and the U.S. knew that and tried to screen for it. I’m sure they caught some and others slipped through, but the bottom line is we’re stronger as a country because we brought in those 400,000 Soviets, but there was a risk.”
Chandrasekar hopes that advocacy by his and other resettlement organizations will push the U.S. to increase President Barack Obama’s pledge to accept 10,000 Syrians and 85,000 refugees overall to 100,000 and 200,000 refugees, respectively.
It’s a prospect that has some in the Jewish community, including Zionist Organization of America national president Morton Klein, concerned about the nation’s safety.
“The violence perpetrated by Muslim immigrants in Europe — especially toward European Jews — portends what America has in store if we bring more such immigrants here,” Klein wrote in an opinion piece published late last year by the Jewish Times. He reproached HIAS, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Council, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Jewish Community Relations Councils nationwide for signing a letter that opposed the induction of additional restrictions and security measures and for “supporting dangerous Syrian immigration.”
Groups representing the Conservative and Orthodox movements, however, have joined the JCRCs, AJC and URJ in backing the call to resettle Syrian refugees.
Jewish Roots, Jewish Ethics
Albert Einstein’s plea for political asylum in 1933, when the Nazi regime took hold of Germany, “was the guiding force behind the creation of the IRC,” Chandrasekar said. “He was responsible in many ways in stimulating the IRC.”
He added that in the beginning it was “a clandestine organization that had staff in German occupied territory,” such as Varian Fry, a Jewish journalist-turned-activist who created fake travel permits allowing Jews to escape to other parts of Europe and the United States. “Our history as an organization is linked to the Jewish community and its history.”
Now, IRC has offices in 33 countries and 26 American cities. Internationally it provides humanitarian assistance such as food, shelter and medical care. Within the United States, many refugees helped by the IRC have stories similar to that of Ali and Amina (not their real names).
Ali was a successful carpenter in Damascus and owned three retail furniture stores. He and his wife Amina had five daughters with a much-hoped-for son on the way. Violent conflicts and eventually civil war erupted in Syria, but the family chose to remain in their home country.
While the civil war raged on, the hospital Amina gave birth in was bombed and her infant was killed.
It was then the couple had to make a difficult decision to leave for their safety and that of their daughters. So in 2012 they left for Lebanon and lived off of savings for a while. Soon Ali needed work and found a job delivering furniture. They tried to make ends meet, but life as a displaced refugee was a dangerous struggle with no end in sight.
Finally, they applied for entry into the United States.
“We resettled them 18 months after they applied, in 2014,” Chandrasekar said, adding that a goal of IRC is to help repopulate Baltimore City, which lost about 300,000 inhabitants during the decades between 1980 and 2000, and to increase its tax base. “Now Ali works at Under Armor as a fork lift driver. Amina just received her driver’s license and the kids are in school.” After losing so much, “refugees come here with the passion to rebuild.”
“And when you look at the nation’s history for more than 200 years, that’s what refugees have done,” Hetfield said. “They’ve strengthened this country not weakened it.”
Since its inception in 1881, HIAS has resettled nearly 5 million new immigrants. This month, after 130 years in New York City, the organization moved its headquarters to Silver Spring.
In the past decade, HIAS readjusted its mission as the first and only agency to protect and resettle Jewish refugees to focusing on non-Jewish refugees. It has received some criticism for the change.
“We evolved from being an agency that helped refugees because they were Jewish to an agency that helps refugees because we are Jewish,” explained Hetfield, who has worked with HIAS on and off since he began as a caseworker in Rome in 1989. “Now we’re a humanitarian service agency, an advocacy agency that is guided by Jewish values and history.”
The result has been that a majority of Jewish family service agencies HIAS previously partnered with to do the groundwork once a refugee entered the United States have either dropped out of the network or will do so this year, including such agencies in Maryland and Washington.
But supported by Jewish laws protecting strangers Hetfield notes are the most repeated in the Torah, he sees his mission as a righteous one.
We were “once strangers ourselves,” he said. “So for that reason it’s very important we’re committed to refugees regardless of who they are.
“If people are committed to protect refugees just because they look like they do or worship like they do, that won’t really lead to anybody being protected. So we have to stand up for everybody.”
To that end, HIAS “managed to easily” get more than 1,200 rabbis to sign a declaration — including more than 80 from the Baltimore-Washington area — that was delivered to all members of Congress in December imploring them to learn from Jewish history, welcome all nationalities of refugees to the country “and to oppose any measures that would actually or effectively halt resettlement or prohibit or restrict funding for any groups of refugees.”
Cotzin Burg of Beth Am was one of the letter’s signees.
“My main concern right now is to continue to encourage our own people, the Jewish community, to think expansively and kindly about the other,” he said. “And this [refugee crisis] seems to me a great opportunity to do so.”