We’ve all seen the heart wrenching photos and read the reports of Syrian refugee children and families in what is being called the worst humanitarian crisis of our time – 4.7 million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries and nearly one million have applied for asylum in Europe.
There are still approximately 13.5 million Syrians still in need of assistance inside Syria. The devastation is difficult to process. As observers far removed from the conflict zone, the images and information can be paralyzing. All summer I have had refugees on my mind and it has led me to seek out positive ways in which individuals and the philanthropic community are taking action. In spite of the enormity of the situation, there is some positive momentum.
Growing up in Twin Falls, Idaho, one of my best friends in elementary school was a boy named Sayaseth. Say, pronounced Sigh, was smart and funny and the best student in our class. His family had escaped from Laos during the warfare and disruption of the 1970’s and had resettled in Twin Falls. I lost touch with him, and have wondered from time to time what became of him. Recently, I was reminded of Say after reading an article this summer in the Economist which highlighted the small community of Twin Falls and their decades long effort to host and welcome refugees and immigrants from disaster and war-torn regions of the world.
This article opened my eyes to something that I hadn’t known about my home state, and especially about the small, conservative community where I grew up. Since the 1970’s, communities in Idaho, especially Twin Falls and Boise, have taken in over 20,000 asylum seekers. Efforts begun in the 1970’s and 1980’s with the boat people fleeing Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos have continued through the 1990’s with asylum seekers from Bosnia, and today with recent arrivals from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Congo, Eritrea, Nepal and Iran. In Twin Falls, programs are managed by the highly esteemed Refugee Resettlement Center, a program sponsored by the College of Southern Idaho.
Of course, these efforts have not been without controversy. The topic of refugees, especially those fleeing currently from Muslim countries in the Middle East, breed fear and resentment among some sectors of the population. Recently, there have been petitions in Twin Falls to take in the welcome mat and close the Refugee Center entirely. Luckily, at least in this community, reason has prevailed. Community leaders assuaged the mounting concerns in the best way possible, with clear information and well documented facts. They held a series of information sessions sponsored by the local newspaper which invited city leaders, educators, public safety officials and medical officials as well as a federal representative from the State Department’s Office of Refugee Admissions to present information to the public accumulated from over 30 years of successful management of refugee programs in the Twin Falls community. Here are some of those facts:
- Refugees who are helped to find work typically contribute more in federal income taxes in a single year than they receive in one-off government refugee grants;
- On average, refugees make over a dollar per hour over the state’s minimum wage, so they are contributing economically in a positive way to the state economy;
- With a state unemployment rate of 3.4%, refugees are not taking up scarce jobs, and are in fact contributing to a much needed workforce in certain sectors;
- Refugees are screened for health problems and have a much lower rate of criminal activity than the general population;
- Special services for refugee and immigrant children, including two centers that prepare newcomers to learn in American schools, accounted for only .42% of the school district’s annual budget;
- Background checks on incoming refugees are heavily scrutinized by numerous security and intelligence agencies and are set to become even stronger.
The global community is working to address this crisis, but government aid and intervention is slow, and subject to political winds which stall and inhibit it from getting to the people who need it most, when they need it. As of last March, only 8% of funds pledged by world governments to aid Syrian refugees had been disbursed. Quick disbursement of funds is critical. It is heartening to know that private individual and corporate philanthropists are stepping up to fill the gap.
Recently George Soros, a wealthy hedge fund billionaire and well-known philanthropist, pledged $500 million to aid refugee causes mostly in Europe. On September 20, 2016 Soros wrote an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled, Why I’m investing in Migrants, stating that he “will invest in startups, established companies, social-impact initiatives and businesses founded by migrants and refugees.” Soros writes, “Governments must play the leading role in addressing this crisis by creating and sustaining adequate physical and social infrastructure for migrants and refugees. But harnessing the power of the private sector is also critical.” (Soros, 2016) Many other companies of note are following suit including Chobani, Western Union, UPS, the Ikea Foundation, Airbnb, MasterCard, LinkedIn, Pearson, Henry Schein, and Johnson & Johnson.
In our own communities there is much that can be done. We should not feel powerless. There is a role for individuals and this role is amplified by being part of a philanthropic community that can be effective and impactful for its ability to be nimble, grassroots and responsive. Faith-based or community groups can reach out to refugees in a specific camp or in a certain region. Private individuals can volunteer professional services or financially support organizations that work to bring refugees the aid they need. Groups like the Refugee Resettlement Center in Twin Falls and elsewhere can continue their important work with immigrant and refugee communities to help them integrate and become positive contributing members of their community and they can continue to combat fear and misinformation with facts and good data.
For further information:
How many Syrian refugees have been resettled in the U.S.? Between October 1st and September 30th 2016 a total of 12,587 Syrian refugees have been admitted into the US. In September 2015, President Obama made the controversial decision to increase the number of Syrian refugees allowed entry into the US in FY 2016 to 10,000, up from 2,000 the previous year. The grand total of refugees from all parts of the world that have been allowed entrance during this same time period is 84,995. Two great sources of information for facts on immigration and refugees are: The Refugee Processing Center and BRYCS – Bridging Refugee Youth and Children Services.