Rhetoric against Syrian refugees brings education opportunities, but also threats

Even before the Paris terrorist attacks in July, a CLINIC affiliate in Biloxi, Mississippi, was getting pushback for processing refugees.

The call by various politicians to make it even more difficult for refugees – particularly Syrians – to be admitted to the United States is causing fallout for several CLINIC affiliates.

But the hostile rhetoric about refugees that ramped up after the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris has led to a united front among advocacy organizations, churches and others who work with and support refugees and immigrants. There’s also been a great effort to educate the public about the realities of refugee resettlement.

Silvia Arias, a paralegal in the Migration and Refugee Center in Biloxi, said their office had been getting harassing phone calls over its refugee program even before terrorists shot up several locations in Paris, killing 130 people and injuring hundreds more. The staff of the CLINIC affiliate through the Diocese of Biloxi initially brushed off calls from people complaining that the agency was bringing Syrians into the United States.

Then the Islamic State organization claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks. Initial reports were that a Syrian passport was found with the body of one of the attackers who died. French authorities subsequently suggested the passport might have been planted at the scene and that it might have been a fake document. All of the identified attackers were citizens of European Union nations, many of them born in Belgium, although some were thought to have traveled to Syria for training.

Nevertheless, there was an outpouring of blame directed at immigrants worldwide and refugees in particular. More than 30 U.S. governors declared they would stop the resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states, ignoring the fact that governors have no real say in what kind of people are resettled where. The House voted to require new, tougher criteria in a screening process that already takes at least 18 months for Syrians.

In this climate, Arias said, someone took to Facebook to post the address of the Migration and Refugee Center, pointing a finger at the organization for bringing Syrians into Mississippi. At that point, law enforcement agencies – and the news media — were called. Magda Ann LeLeaux, resettlement director for the agency, told reporters that the program has not actually worked with any Syrian refugees and there are none in the pipeline.

“It calmed down,” after those interviews went out, Arias said. The effects of being singled out in social media as having anything to do with Syrians – even hypothetically – linger.

“We keep our doors locked now,” she explained. Anyone who comes to the building for an appointment or an ESL class has to knock and be admitted.

The center typically only works with a handful of refugees a year. Its most recent resettlement clients have been Cubans, admitted under provisions for parole, said Regina Catalano, case manager. The program, which was established during an influx of 130,000 Vietnamese refugees to the U.S. in the 1970s, more recently has worked with refugees from Ethiopia, Iraq and Palestine, Catalano explained.

CLINIC Executive Director Jeanne Atkinson weighed in with other legal, advocacy and social service organizations in calling for prayer and action in response to the governors’ calls to block Syrian refugees.

Organizations with a hand in the process also have produced some very useful explanations of exactly how the refugee process works, and just how complicated it is to be admitted to the United States as a refugee. These might be helpful to those who find themselves struggling to respond with facts and figures to the anti-refugee rhetoric.

Find links to those appeals and to other resources about refugees here.

Patricia Zapor is Director of Communications for CLINIC

Source: Catholic Charities

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