Images of Syrian refugees streaming into Europe have dominated the news for the past week, but the crisis is more than a European issue. World Relief Spokane settled 527 refugees in the Inland Northwest last year, mostly from the Middle East, Southeast Asia and central and eastern Africa.
Director Mark Kadel believes the U.S. has an important role to play in the Syrian refugee crisis, and he said his office has been overwhelmed by calls and emails from Spokane residents who want to help. We sat down with him to ask about the current crisis and how Spokane fits in.
S-R: Why is Europe being flooded with Syrian refugees?
Kadel: Since 2012, Syria has lost nearly 4 million of their citizens. About one-sixth of the population of the country has crossed into neighboring countries fleeing the conflict. It’s just overcome the neighboring countries.
In Lebanon today, one out of seven people in the country is a Syrian refugee. In Jordan, it’s one out of 10. The U.N. just doesn’t have funds to be able to meet the needs of providing humanitarian assistance. It’s more pronounced right now in Syria because neighboring countries like Jordan and Turkey are already inundated with refugees from Iraq that have come there over the last 10 years. So it’s getting to a crisis point where there isn’t any food, they’re running out of shelter. Consequently, they’re beginning to migrate into Europe trying to find some type of resource.
S-R: Where does the U.S. fit into the refugee crisis?
Kadel: The modern United States refugee resettlement program is a federal program, and we’ve been resettling refugees in our country for the last 35 years. Every year the president sets a determination on refugees, and the last several years the administration’s set that cap at 70,000.
Our country had planned to receive no more than 1,500 Syrians this year. We might make it to 1,000. Out of 4 million refugees, that’s a mere drop in the bucket of what we’re capable of.
S-R: What about the Obama administration’s announcement on Sept. 10 that the U.S. will take in 10,000 new Syrian refugees over the next year? (Editor’s note: World Relief’s national headquarters issued a statement Sept. 10 following the announcement calling on the Obama administration to accept 200,000 refugees next year, including 100,000 Syrians.)
Kadel: We were very thankful for this announcement. We hope that that’s in addition to and not in replacement of other refugees that have just as much need as the Syrians.
S-R: What’s standing in the way of more refugees coming to the U.S.?
Kadel: There is a long process for a refugee to come to the United States. They have to go to multiple interviews to prove that they really are fleeing their country because of a fear of persecution. Once they have been interviewed and determined they fit that definition, they go through a number of medical checks and security checks. This whole process takes time. Sometimes it takes eight months to two years.
Part of it has to do with the anti-immigration sentiment in this country. There are some communities that may perceive they’re being inundated with refugees. There’s some pushback in that.
S-R: How do you respond to people who don’t want refugees to come here?
Kadel: We all can trace our American citizenship to one of our ancestors that came to this country. We wouldn’t be here today if America hadn’t opened their arms to them. This is the least that we can do as a humanitarian country – provide an opportunity for these people to start their lives again.
I had a lady here in Spokane call me two weeks ago that had a refugee Muslim family move in across the street. She was all up in arms. I talked to her and gave her some facts and figures and invited her to go over and introduce herself. Yesterday I talked to this refugee family and they told me that she’s over every day, she’s bringing them groceries, she’s bringing them fruit off her tree, she’s checking in on them. She absolutely is their best neighbor.
S-R: What can we do to address the root causes of the refugee crisis?
Kadel: Continue to fund organizations that are working to stem the crisis of refugees fleeing their areas of conflict and supporting them monetarily so they can meet the needs. And of course, working toward peaceful resolutions in the countries that are having war so these refugees feel safe to return.
A refugee camp isn’t a viable solution for a refugee. The first viable solution is for the conflict to end, the dictator to be removed, the persecution to be removed, so the refugees can go back to the land of their forefathers. The second solution would be for them to be integrated into the country they flee to, but that rarely happens. So the only other viable solution is for a third country like the United States to be able to offer them an opportunity to be resettled in their country.
S-R: How can people in Spokane get involved?
Kadel: We’re receiving refugees every week this month. Seventy refugees are coming to Spokane this month that people can get engaged with and help with, by either donating furniture, donating cash, getting involved in our volunteer program. We would hope that when these Syrians that are in the camps today finally get to the U.S. next year, people will still be genuinely moved and be able to be involved with the resettlement that we’re doing and not just let it just be a passing interest that they have right now.
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