On Saturday June 17th at 4 pm members of the St Ignatius family and the community at large were treated to dinner with two recently resettled Syrian families, the Fares’ and the Algothani’s. Almost 40 individuals interacted with members of the two families: Fares family (parents Ahmad and Fatima, children Mohamed, Safa, Imad, Sama, Jamal and Tarek) and Algothani family (mother Madiha, children Mohammed, Mohanned, Ahmad and Ayman). There were 4 main aims of this event: to provide information about the refugee crisis in general and the detailed process of resettlement, to hear first hand from the families about their journey from Syria to the US, to provide some financial support to the families and to advocate to our representative in DC.

Information about the refugee crisis and details about the resettlement process were provided by Immigration sub committee chair, Vonetta Edwards. The focus on the resettlement process stems from the numerous mis-characterizations that exist about the supposed lack of due diligence in screening refugees and therefore the ease with which persons with nefarious intentions can get into the US. There are 65.3 million forcibly displaced individuals worldwide, of which 21.3 million are classified as refugees. Less than 1% of these refugees are even considered for resettlement and they do not have a choice regarding the country that they are assigned to. While the US accepts the largest number of refugees in raw numbers (66,000), compared per capita to Germany that has accepted approximately 1% of its native born population, the US would need to accept 400,000 refugees.

The resettlement process can take over 2 years, consists of multiple stages and is completely conducted before the applicant sets foot on US soil. Essentially the applicants go through 8 US Federal Gov’t agencies, 6 different security databases, 5 separate background checks, 4 biometric security checks, 3 separate in-person interviews, 2 inter-agency security checks. Details can be found at https://www.state.gov/j/prm/ra/admissions/index.htm. As the information was being presented the families were asked how their stories compared and a robust discussion on ISIS arose. It was pointed out that ISIS does not represent or speak for Islam and that the majority of its victims are Muslim themselves. One fact that surprised most of the attendees is that the families are required to repay the US government for the cost of their travel to the US and this monthly repayment process begins within the 1st year of arrival.

Looking more locally at the crisis, Maryland ranks 15th in US states for refugee resettlement with 759 refugees resettled in Baltimore City and 500 in Prince Georges County in 2016. When refugees arrive they are greeted at the airport by a caseworker (in Baltimore usually from 1 of these 3 agencies: International Rescue Committee, World Relief or Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services), taken to their rental home and provided with some welcome money, which is based on the size of the family. Full support from the government stops after 90 days at which point the families are expected to be able to pay for their own lodgings, food and other necessities or to have navigated a means of obtaining support via the few subsidy programs that they are eligible for. The main barrier is usually their ability to learn enough English to be able to gain employment that provides comfortably for their families. One case of this is Ahmad Fares who drove 18-wheelers across the Middle East before the war in Syria began. Until he can master enough English to attain his commercial divers license, he has been employed as a dishwasher at a local Catonsville restaurant.

Attendees then heard from Rashid Al Banna, a case manage at Muslim Social Services Agency, which is a 501(c) faith based charity. He spoke about the gaps between what is provided for the families and their actual need after the very brief full support period. While money is important, most of the families are looking for assistance with learning English and navigating a new culture and a new bureaucracy, especially in relation to the schooling of their children. His agency works closely with Work America trying to find suitable jobs for these families. He also spoke about the Aleppo Kitchen, a locally based refugee catering company. Currently they solely cater meals but are hoping to expand to providing staff for catering events. They would also like to create a recognized brand of Halal offerings that would be found at local grocery stores and to expand to having food trucks as well. Another goal is to professionally train refugees in the culinary arts so that they can enter professional kitchens certified and capable of adding their local cuisine to complement existing dishes. They are planning to team up with La Cocina (VA) to attain these goals.

Next we heard from the families themselves. Fares family left Aleppo in 2013 and travelled to Turkey from where they were resettled to the US. They feel welcomed in the US but the school-aged children, especially the younger ones, are being bullied in school. The children have been out of school for over 5 years (in the case of the younger ones they never attended school) and the adjustment of being back in school at age appropriate grades and being taught in a language that you are now learning is extremely difficult. One daughter comes home almost daily with migraines and a son has mentioned suicidal tendencies. Issues are so bad for the younger ones that they are trying to move them to a new school. While Ahmad currently works as a dishwasher, Fatima caters Syrian meals and can be contacted at 443-473-4667.

The Algothani family left Daraa and lived in Turkey for 3 years and will celebrate 1 year in the US at the end of June. While also grateful for the opportunity to rebuild their lives in the US, they are also struggling with learning the language and the children are in subpar schools. What makes it even more frustrating is that the school is about 1 hour away. The neighborhood is not safe, their home has pests and others in the area bully the children, but they cannot move as they have no credit score and not enough money for a deposit AND first month’s rent. It has gotten so bad for the children that they are experiencing depression in addition to dealing with residual issues that they faced while in the Jordan camp. The family is planning to home school if they cannot have the multiple issues at the school addressed or have the children transferred to another school. In addition the husband needs to find work that can sustain the family, a significant portion of the family’s income comes from Madiha’s catering (443-802-1695). While the long term prospects for the children and potential future generations is better in the US, they state that the Jordan camp was easier for them as there was no language barrier and more services were readily available.

While the event was free, a donation was collected and divided between the families to at least temporarily alleviate some of the financial stress that they are under. I am proud to say that our group of 30 plus attendees donated $1000. This was presented to Fatima and Madiha, who were most grateful.

The final aspect of the evening was our advocacy done in support of Jesuit Refugee Services Protect US Humanitarian Assistance for Refugees. Attendees signed on to a letter campaign from JRS urging our representatives in DC to oppose President Trump’s proposed FY18 cut of 32% of the funding that the US gives to humanitarian and development programs worldwide. The US budget for foreign assistance represents less than 1% of overall US budget but is essential in sustaining the lives of millions of refuges. We obtained signatures to be sent to both senators and 5 of our 8 MD representatives. These will be sent with a copy of the JRS letter and a letter with St Ignatius letterhead explaining the event that the signatures were attained at.

Overall the event was an amazing success with many attendees expressing gratitude that they were able to interact directly with the families and hear their stories. The authentic Middle Eastern meal of Kabsa, Kibbeh, Tabbouleh, seasoned green beans and rice pudding catered by Fatima and Madiha and supplemented with pita bread, hummus by parishioner Anne Haddad was blessed by both Fr. Casciotti and Mr. Al Banna and thoroughly enjoyed. In addition to the financial assistance, the families were able to add to their support system as some of the college students present reached out to the families at the end of the event. Thank you to everyone who made this event possible and an overwhelming success.

Below are additional informational resources:
Refugee Facts
Refugees and Resettlement
Seven Common Myths About Refugee Settlement in the US
UNHCR Resettlement in US
USA Refugee Security Screening Background