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‘Life is better here,’ say resettled Syrians, as calls to welcome more refugees to St. Louis mount

Maria Altman | St. Louis Public Radio
Mohammad and Samira Said are two of the 29 refugees that have been resettled in St. Louis so far in the past year.

Mohammad and Samira Said are two of the 29 Syrian refugees that have been resettled in St. Louis in the past year. They came here in June after leaving Syria in 2013 in the midst of a war that has brought destruction to the country.

Since 2011, more than 4 million refugees have fled for safety across Syria’s borders. Before coming to the U.S. they lived in Istanbul, which they say was hard because they had no jobs, no papers and their four children, aged 14, 15, 17 and 20 could not go to school.

“The life is better here, better than before,” Samira said through an Arabic-language interpreter at an afternoon press conference. “We are on the safe side.”

Maria Altman interviews Mohammad and Samira Said, who are two of the 29 Syrian refugees that have been resettled in St. Louis in the past year.

President Barack Obama on Thursday issued a directive for the U.S. to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees in the coming fiscal year, and many are wondering what role St. Louis could bringing  a large number of those refugees here.

But what about the future of other Syrian refugees looking to resettle in St. Louis?

Faizan Syed, the Executive Director of the St. Louis Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, has organized a march to bring more Syrian refugees to St. Louis in the coming year and posted publicly on his Facebook page that the number Obama is proposing is “an insult,” calling for many more than that amount to be brought to the United States.

Syed has echoed calls by humanitarian and religious groups, as well as a coalition of 14 Democratic senators, to bring 65,000 refugees to the U.S. by the end of 2016.

Meanwhile, others in St. Louis have suggested 60,000 Syrian refugees be brought here, citing the resettlement of Bosnians to St. Louis in the 1990s. Anna Crosslin, president and CEO of St. Louis’ International Institute, said that number isn't realistic.

“While there are St. Louisans who have stepped forward and said ‘We can take a lot of Syrians, you know we resettled 60,000 Bosnians,’ the reality is that there’s a bit of misunderstanding about the Bosnian community and what occurred there,” Crosslin said during a conversation with “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Thursday. “The Bosnian community is as many as 50,000 in St. Louis and [St. Louis] originally sponsored 10,000 Bosnians from overseas for a period of 8 years.”

The way the rest of the community was built was through two routes—the secondary migration of refugees resettled in other U.S. cities and also through the children of Bosnian refugees who are natural-born citizens. Fifty percent of the 50,000 Bosnians in St. Louis are estimated to be the children of refugees.

“So, our ability to resettle 60,000 Syrians depends on the question of whether there are 60,000 Syrians available for any city [in the U.S.] let alone St. Louis,” Crosslin said. She also mentioned that she and other St. Louis leaders are hesitant to put out concrete numbers for Syrian resettlement because they are waiting for word from the federal government, which influences what local response will be.

Mayor Francis Slay said at a press conference on Thursday that the city is "ready and willing" to take in more refugees. He said his paternal grandparents came to St. Louis from Lebanon before World War I.

"Our family has been engaged in business and political life for many, many years, and I think we owe it to others to show compassion," Slay said.

The mayor also released an informal poll Thursday asking about St. Louis’ potential role in responding to the refugee crisis. As of late afternoon, 65 percent polled said the United States should increase the number of refugees admitted and 43 percent responded that the country should take more than 65,000. About 16 percent of those polled said St. Louis should take no refugees.

Jana Mason, a Senior Advisor for External Relations and Government Affairs for the United National High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said that only a very small number refugees worldwide are resettled.

Anna Crosslin of the International Institute of St. Louis and Jana Mason, senior policy advisor to the U. S. Government for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, joined host Don Marsh in studio.
Credit Áine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio
Anna Crosslin and Jana Mason.

“Less than one half of one percent of the world’s refugees are resettled because it is a solution only for those who are most desperate, most vulnerable and can’t stay where they are,” she said. “We’ve identified approximately 130,000 Syrians starting with last year going through end of fiscal 2016 that we’ve called on the U.S. and other countries to resettle.”

Mason said the U.S. has traditionally shouldered half the resettled refugee burden, which is where the 65,000 number comes from.

Here are some other questions that listeners had about the potential resettlement of Syrian refugees:

What is a refugee? And what does resettlement mean?

We always make a distinction between immigrants and migrants and refugees,” Mason said. “Immigrants and migrants being people that move voluntarily usually for economic reasons to make a better life. Refugees are people who are forced flee. No one chooses to be a refugee.”

“Because they are [legally labeled] refugees who cannot return to their home country, they have the option after a year to apply for permanent residency and after five years to become a citizen,
 Crosslin said. “Refugee designation has a permanence to it that in terms of these are people who are coming here to become part of the fiber of American society.”

Are there limits to the number of refugees that the U.S. can take in?

“Most of the Syrian refugees are in neighboring countries--4 million,” said Mason. “Most will stay there until it is safe to return to Syria, which we hope will be soon. Others are undertaking the journey to Europe. And others will hopefully find new homes in the US or other countries. St. Louis will hopefully be one of those cities where they could find a home.

“Right now, the U.S. has a global refugee admission ceiling of 70,000 and only 1500 have arrived so far. For the U.S. to admit a much larger number of Syrians in addition to other refugees, there would need to be action by the executive branch and congress to increase that number.”

What do we know about the backgrounds of refugees, specifically given security concerns coming from the Middle East?

"Under international law and U.S. law, [refugees] are exempt from normal immigration procedures, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t carefully screened and vetted,” Mason said. “The US Department of Homeland Security that interviews refugees overseas before admission [into the country] runs them through a very complicated security process before they arrive.”

Typically, a refugee will sit in front of a Department of Homeland Security official, tell his or her story, have fingerprints taken and is checked against an FBI and other interagency databases. Mason said refugee populations are one of the most heavily screened populations of immigrants that enter the U.S. “It’s one of the reasons it takes several years for refugees to be admitted, the process is not taken lightly,” Mason said.

What is the religion of Syrians and how can we expect them to mesh with American culture?

"The thing that we have to remember about Syrians is that there a variety of different religious backgrounds of individuals that are there,” Crosslin said.”There is a large persecuted Christian population. Not all of the population that would be coming here would be Muslim. We need to reserve judgment. We find whether Muslim or other religions, that if people are welcoming and can find commonalities, that they can build effective relationships.”

Mason also added that, generally, when a marginalized group flees persecution, they want to leave conflicts behind and focus on their new lives.

“Look at Bosnians in the 1990s,” Crosslin said. “There was a lot of hoopla at the time about how they were Muslims…were they going to fit in, could we trust them? The reality is they are wonderful contributors to our community. When people don’t know people, or don’t have personal contact, they may be hesitant. And yet, in hindsight, when they look back they seem to be a boon to our communities and society.”

Should preference be given to persecuted minorities?

My role at the UN is to identify out of the millions of Syrians, who are the ones that need resettlement?” said Mason. “The primary solution is for them to go home, but for the medically needy cases, victims of torture, trauma, single women, people who are really vulnerable, we identify and refer. The government then decides who comes and where they will go.”

Why would St. Louis be a good fit for Syrian refugees?

"We’re four and half percent foreign-born here in St. Louis,” Crosslin said. Contrary to some cities where there are large numbers of foreign-born, we could benefit from being more diverse than we are already. That means we have elected officials, businesses, educational institutions that are behind building the foreign-born community here because they recognize they are a boon to the community, come with a high entrepreneur rate, and serve as a source of population for cities like St. Louis where we’ve suffered from population loss for the last 50-60 years.”

Crosslin also mentioned that the Bosnian community has stepped forward during  the 20 years after its own resettlement and said they would step up and help Syrian refugees if they were resettled here. “Syrians may arrive here without friends and family, but they will have a supportive community of others that we have helped already,” Crosslin said. 

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

Special thanks to Maria Altman, who contributed to this report. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.