By Jeongyoon Han
It’s 6:30 on a fall evening when 10-year-old Alene picks up an unattended iPhone lying on the table at Hopeprint, an organization in Syracuse dedicated to refugee assistance. Children laugh at her jokes as they draw pictures of their families.
Alene opens Safari and types into Google: “Kinyarwanda English Translator.” She finds one dictionary for her native Rwandan language, but it doesn’t work. Alene moves on to her next target: finding a Rwandan pop music video. Success: her favorite pop song starts to play on YouTube, and she sings along.
Alene left Rwanda with her family as a refugee in 2014 and has joined Hopeprint’s support system, attending functions such as the Nightlife event, a gathering space for refugees and city students. But even after two years in the U.S., all that seems to be on her mind is life back in her home country.
Her story here in Syracuse isn’t a unique narrative; according to syracuse.com, she is just one of more than 10,000 refugees who have come to Syracuse from 42 countries since 2000. Beth Broadway, President/CEO of InterFaith Works, an organization that creates community dialogue between people from different religious, racial and ethnic backgrounds, said that all of these refugees face a difficult transition period.
“It’s a very challenging time,” Broadway said. “You know, it’s a time when people are having to face that they won’t be going home again, or if they do, they’re going to be going through something quite extraordinary to get there, so it’s very difficult for people to make that transition.”
It’s a story that the American public has heard over and over again: refugees comes to the country because they are a humanitarian concern for the U.S. or are persecuted because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Refugees are unable or unwilling to return home for fear of serious harm.
And in Syracuse, these people can find a safe haven. Onondaga County has the highest acceptance rate per capita in New York, and the third highest in all of America, according to syracuse.com. Syracuse’s strong refugee assistance system, which involves organizations such as Hopeprint, the Refugee Assistance Program (RAP) and InterFaith, is what makes Syracuse an optimal refugee resettlement location.
But this isn’t to say that the transition to life in America is easy. Facing economic, cultural and emotional challenges, refugees arriving in Syracuse must undergo a complete transformation of their lives. And while Syracuse’s long history in welcoming refugees is undeniable, there still remains work to be done to make them feel completely at home, especially with the current refugee experience becoming increasingly complicated.
Dr. Bruce W. Dayton, Director of the CONTACT Peacebuilding Program at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vt., considers it a major accomplishment that more than 12,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in the U.S. from 2011 up to this past August throughout 231 American cities. However, he argued, the confluence of past events — including Sept. 11, terrorist attacks in the U.S. and Europe within the past year, and the rise of ISIS and al-Qaeda — have fueled a false perception that Syrian refugees will somehow threaten our security.
Further exacerbating the situation is the increasingly tense political climate in America, which has exaggerated our negative perceptions of refugees, specifically those from Syria. And many view President-elect Donald Trump as one of the instigators of such hateful messages against immigrants and refugees alike. His message at a Rhode Island rally in April was quite clear: refugees are not welcome.
“Now here’s one [thing] I don’t like,” Trump said, as recorded by many media outlets. “Syrian refugees are now being resettled in Rhode Island … Just enjoy your — lock your doors, folks.”
Going further at a Phoenix, Ariz., rally, Trump referred to refugees as a “Trojan horse” and even went as far as to suggest that mosques be put under special surveillance, according to The Guardian.
Such rhetoric has hurt many refugees, including 16-year-old Omar Omar and his cousin, 15-year-old Murjan Abdi. Even though both came from Kenya to the U.S. more than 10 years ago, the never-ending misconception that all Muslims — like themselves — are terrorists still makes them feel unwelcome.
“That’s wrong,” Omar said. “It’s tough, because not all of us do this … He’s [Trump] accusing all of Muslims doing this. Because we’re Arabic.”
Dayton said Trump’s talk has negatively impacted not only refugees, but also the nation’s attitude towards them..
“It is such a miniscule fraction of that community, and to characterize an entire group according to the actions of a tiny, tiny fraction is the worst kinds of stereotyping and prejudice that I can imagine,” Dayton said.
“I think that that has really tainted the way that people see refugees. I think the public has very much been swayed in viewing the refugee crisis as being seen as a security threat, as a threat to security…instead of the way that I think it should be seen, which is a humanitarian crisis, which is a threat to humanity, which we all have a responsibility to try to alleviate.”
Broadway agrees; Trump’s sentiments has allowed for a sense of negativity against refugees to surface. Rather than recognizing the hardships of a new American, Broadway said she believes that members of the public have fears regarding refugees that are not grounded.
“It’s tough to be in the kind of economy that we have where so many people are unemployed; native people, people who were born here, are unemployed, people who feel like they haven’t kind of achieved the American dream, and so there’s this sense of entitlement around that and how we balance that with this huge global crisis of refugees,” Broadway said.
“It’s been a mixed bag. I think that the current election has really allowed us to have a picture of the divisions that we have in the United States about welcoming ‘the stranger,’ which is very much a part of every faith tradition, but there’s a lot of fear.”
According to Stephanie Horton, Program Facilitator for the Refugee Assistance Program — an organization run through the Syracuse City School District to teach English to adult refugees and prepare them for the job market — this negative environment can be exacerbated by the fact that Syrian refugees are coming directly from an active war region.
“So a lot of our other refugee groups are coming from more stable conditions … and they’ve had time to catch their breath, for lack of a better word. But these folks are coming out of active, violent situations,” Horton said.
Horton said this can cause a longer transition, as the change from living in a war-torn climate to a country in peacetime can be daunting and arduous.
This challenge to start new lives in America will become even more pertinent, according to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research organization. MPI has stated that in addition to welcoming more than 12,000 Syrian refugees since 2013, the Obama administration will “significantly increase” the number of refugees coming into the US — from 70,000 in 2015 to 85,000 in 2016 and 100,000 in 2017.
This will directly impact Syracuse, as Mayor Stephanie Miner has officially promoted opening the city to more refugees by joining the Cities for Action coalition, which consists of more than 118 mayors and county leaders supporting federal immigration reform.
Horton and Broadway’s main goal on the local level is to try to reduce all of these external burdens for the refugees they serve, especially their 50 Syrian refugee families, so that refugees can reach a state of self-sufficiency within a year.
Their role in the resettlement process, however, begins only once refugees have been vetted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the United Nations. Broadway said normally, it takes two to three years to get the finances, documentation and approval to enter the U.S., but the vetting process is so extensive and complex that in extreme cases, it can 20. According to Homeland Security, Syrians must pass two more layers of security checks than refugees from any other country. After the Paris attack, the House of Representatives voted to tighten security. The 20-step vetting process for Syrian refugees can take at least two years.
“If terrorists are going to get into this country, it’s not going to be through the refugee resettlement programs,” Broadway said.
And when they do manage to arrive in the U.S., refugees essentially start from the ground up, which can be disheartening. One new American encapsulated the entire feeling to Broadway in one statement: “I’ve come to realize that U.S.A. stands for You Start Again.”
“There’s inevitably a kind of a disenchantment that happens,” Broadway said. “You know, you first come and you think, ‘Oh. I’m going to America, I’m going to be an American.’ … But then they come here, and it’s hard. You might come on a beautiful August day, but four months later, you’re in the depths of winter. And if you’re from Africa, that can just be awful for people.”
Only given $900 to cover the first 90 days of expenses — including a security deposit and the first month of rent — these new Americans must initially rely on Syracuse’s carefully structured refugee assistance framework, which remains one of the strongest frameworks in the U.S. thanks to InterFaith Works and Catholic Charities, the two resettlement agencies in Syracuse, along with refugee support groups such as Hopeprint and the Refugee Assistance Program.
The transition can take weeks, months, or years, depending on one’s particular circumstances. While money remains a big issue in the transition period, according to Horton and Broadway, the most universal issues that refugees face are learning English and getting jobs.
“Learning the language is huge,” Horton said. “Probably right at the top [of priorities].”
Thirteen-year old Devi, a Nepali refugee who has been in Syracuse — America — for about two years, has gradually opened herself to the local community by performing traditional Nepali dances. Still, she finds the transition difficult, namely because of learning English, which illustrates the huge challenge agencies face in helping refugees over this hurdle.
“I’m so scared,” she said. “I don’t know how to talk English … don’t know how to speak English.”
Programs that both RAP and InterFaith offer help address language issues along with cultural adjustment. RAP offers English Language Learners five days a week from Monday to Friday.
Different members of the community have also contributed greatly to help refugees learn their way around Syracuse. Centro, Syracuse’s public transportation system, offers a free learning program so that new refugees — who mostly live in the city — can become accustomed to what some Americans view as basic knowledge: buying a bus ticket and knowing the conventional bus system.
Syracuse Police Department Chief of Police Frank L. Fowler has also worked closely with InterFaith, Broadway said, establishing translation lines for refugees seeking assistance and a specialized policing unit that works for the safety of refugees.
While Hopeprint and InterFaith can easily and quickly help new refugee families meet their basic needs, the bigger challenge is for refugees to feel connected to the American community.
U.S. Rep. John Katko, R-Syracuse, said that this sense of awareness — for both refugees and natives — about different cultures and ideas is crucial.
“Acceptance and appreciation of different backgrounds and cultures strengthens our community and our region,” he said in an email. “It is important that we increase awareness and coordinate greater local efforts to unite our community and combat prejudice.”
Dayton, Horton and Broadway agree that the most effective way to create a better climate for refugees in America is to have more local programs to unite people of varying backgrounds and to educate local communities about refugees. Broadway even argued that the focus should be to foster cooperation among nations so that the international community can eventually reduce wars and conflicts that force us to accept refugees in the first place.
MPH’s Refugee Outreach Club Association (ROCA) founder Hannah Ebner said she believes that just increasing awareness regarding the refugee experience will do much to help create a more open space for dialogue.
Ebner, who helped start the MPH ROCA chapter last summer, said she believes that through awareness projects like clothing drives, fundraisers and education on refugees, millennials can feel more empowered to assist new Americans.
“I hope I can help other people, people our age who will go on into future generations and carry this idea that we can help and there is always someone to help,” Ebner said.
Employees at MPH have been doing just that: led by Sue Foster, Head of the Science Department, teachers and staff furnished an apartment with basic necessities for a new refugee family in November.
But on a more basic level, Dayton said that perhaps the most effective way to increase empathy within the U.S. is for the public to recognize that refugees and native U.S. citizens aren’t much different.
“It’s easy to demonize and be afraid of somebody until you meet them and realize they’re not so different from me,” Dayton said. “They have the same kind of fears and dreams and hopes for their children as I do.”