Last month, the US welcomed its ten-thousandth Syrian war refugee as part of its year-old resettlement program. However, according to many, this is but a small drop of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians and Middle Eastern refugees who have fled the wars in their countries.
Most Americans view the US as a nation made up of refugees who emigrated to the country during the past two centuries in search of a better life. So, they believe that the 10,000 Syrian refugees granted refuge this year are a tiny and inexcusable number. Almost five million Syrians have fled their civil war during the last five years. They struggle to survive in tough conditions in neighboring countries – Jordan has, for example, taken in 660,000 Syrian refugees – or risk their lives by trying to reach -Europe, where they file for asylum.
Impact of elections
For those refugees hoping to make it to the US, the future of their plight appears to be wrapped up in the November presidential elections.
Republican nominee Donald Trump has said that, if elected, he would suspend welcoming refugees from Syria, calling them a “potential security threat”. He further said this would also be true for all Muslims hoping to find shelter on America’s shores. For those 10,000 Syrians who have made it to the US, it is interesting to see the breakdown of where refugees end up, as many Republican governors have refused to grant asylum to refugees within their borders.
California and Michigan have taken the lead in receiving the most Syrian refugees, followed by Arizona, Illinois and Texas. Other cities that have welcomed a significant number (all under 500 -refugees) are Chicago, Illinois; Glendale, Arizona; Troy, Michigan; and Dallas, Texas.
Despite the ardent anti-immigrant campaign being waged by Trump, many Americans are angered by the slim number of refugee families that have been allowed to enter the US. Recently, hundreds of concerned American citizens – including those of Muslim, Christian and Jewish origins – gathered in the shadow of the Washington Monument to express their support, raise awareness about the global refugee crisis and urge continued US action at home and abroad to alleviate the suffering of refugees through relief efforts and resettlement.
The event, billed as the “DC Rally 4 Refugees,” drew Americans from throughout the nation. The five-hour performance featured a variety of speeches and performances including, among -others, the Pihcintu Chorus of 32 female refugees, Syrian opera singer Lubana Al-Quntar and Iraqi pop/rock band UTN1.
Speakers included award-winning journalists, songwriters and former Iraqi -ministers and ambassadors. Medical professionals who had recently volunteered in Syria also addressed the crowd, as did refugee children who assembled on the stage, singing various American patriotic songs.
How much is ‘too little’?
“At the moment, this effort is my religion. Our goal today is to help everyone understand that every little bit helps,” said Kathy Hertz, founder and executive director of DC Rally 4 Refugees. Pausing, she explained that people hesitate to offer help because they don’t know what to do and they feel that their effort may be judged as insignificant. On the contrary, Hertz explained: “‘Too little’ means to do nothing. People just need to do something, anything.”
Hertz, who used her vacation time to help refugees on the Greek island of -Lesbos, said she is astonished to see how detached too many Americans appear to be in the face of the greatest refugee crisis since World War II.
“When I came home (from Lesbos), I couldn’t believe that people were not out protesting and screaming in the streets and doing something [to help resolve the plight of the refugees],” Hertz said.
“Many refugees are asking for our help,” she said, adding that those who are on her special list to assist are the “-Afghan translators and police who worked for us in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Outraged by the plight of those men and women who opted to help the US troops in their countries when they needed them, she said: “They – the Afghans and Iraqis – can apply for a visa, but it takes two years to go through a background search in order to be accepted and granted a visa.”
“They’ll be dead by then,” she said angrily, acknowledging that these local experts have been, and are being, targeted and killed for having helped the coalition troops in their countries. “As a private citizen, I believe that if someone helped us, then we owe it to them to help them and ensure their safety. If not, well then, why should anyone bother to help us? What is the message we are sending out to others who may consider helping us in the future?” she asked. “Our goal is to help have everyone understand that every little bit helps. Everyone just needs to do something… Anything.”
In support of refugees
DC Rally 4 Refugees is but one of several organizations focused on helping refugees seeking refuge in the US. Many concerned US citizens told TRENDS that they remain discouraged that these pro-refugee events receive such little, if any, coverage by the media. This is significant, as many American soldiers and US Marines who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and worked with local civilians who helped them on the ground, have not forgotten those who risked their lives there. And, since their return home, these US troops have been working hard to obtain more visas for these imperiled local citizens.
In August, for example, a group of US military veterans held a briefing in the US Capitol building, hoping to persuade congressional leaders and the news media about why the military drawdown in Afghanistan has made it all the more urgent that Congress sustain funding in 2017 for the SIV program.
Their talk, titled “Bonds of War: America’s Veterans and their Wartime Allies”, drew a capacity audience comprising US representatives, senate and congressional staffers, and concerned citizens. “There are 10,000 Afghans who have applied to be in the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) application backlog,” Steven Miska, a retired Army colonel, told those who attended the event.
The SIV program was created by the US Congress in 2007 as a way to streamline immigration for Afghans and Iraqis who had risked their lives supporting -American diplomats and combat troops. Many of these immigrants and their families urgently needed to relocate because their service to the US government had placed them in danger in their homeland. Until last year, only 1,000 of these visas were granted per year.
Miska, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, now campaigns tirelessly to help those on the ground who helped the coalition, especially those who worked with the US troops. Retired from the US Army more than a year ago, he continues to speak out regarding the life–threatening perils that both Afghans and Iraqis -regularly endure in their homelands.
“In addition to the Afghans, there also are thousands of Iraqis awaiting approval to immigrate to the US,” Miska told your correspondents after the briefing. “Failure to sustain SIV means that the United States will break faith with the people who risked their lives for me and other US troops for the betterment of our country…and theirs.”
Miska, who spoke on the Bonds of War panel, has long lobbied Congress not to abandon the thousands of Afghan and Iraqi interpreters, contractors and indigenous civilians “who were America’s closest allies.” A decorated combat veteran who served in Afghanistan, Iraq and on the White House National Security Council, Miska argues that America’s sustainment of the SIV program “demonstrates that the US stands by its friends…and doesn’t leave them to the mercy of our enemies.”
Making a difference
Matt Zeller, another retired Army veteran who appeared on the Bonds of War panel, said this and other Capitol Hill briefings he and his military colleagues have held were “not conversation[s] about refugees; it’s a conversation about veterans. All of us – US soldiers, American diplomats and our wartime allies whose lives are now at risk – who were called to serve their country… We all have a common bond: we are people who did things that truly mattered. We made a difference for our country.”
Chase Millsap, first a Marine then an Army Ranger, who served five tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan, used the occasion of the Bonds of War briefing to screen a 24-minute National Geographic documentary that he produced with his brother, Spencer, about his effort to personally help a disabled Iraqi military officer and his family relocate to the US. However, the family is yet to make it to America. Speaking to the group in the shadow of the US Congress, he said: “Our film, The Captain’s Story: A Bond of Brotherhood Forged in War, is really about my relationship with another combat veteran – my Iraqi ‘brother.’ Sadly, my inability to help my Iraqi brother – and to help other Iraqi refugees just like him – prevents me from moving on in life,” said Chase, whose film documents the journey that the Millsap brothers made to Turkey to help a former Iraqi army officer emigrate to the US.
Chase, who is struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), said he is using his medical military benefits to financially support his Iraqi ‘brother’, who was his military colleague in the Iraqi Army, and who saved his life.
“My inability to help him to get refugee status prevents me from moving on. The money I receive from the Veteran’s Administration for my PTSD goes straight to my Iraqi brother and his family currently living in Turkey. This helps me with my recovery,” he said.
“Military training also inculcates a professional ethic that we leave no one behind on the field of battle,” added Miska. “Many veterans feel like we violated that code when we left our closest partners behind at the end of a combat rotation. Military doctrine preaches the importance of interpreters and other indigenous partners who -support operations. Combat veterans implicitly understand that.”
These retired veterans also warned about the potentially dangerous blowback this inability to help local coalition partners could have on US coalition troops in future engagements. “It is a national security issue: if we don’t help those who helped us in Iraq and -Afghanistan, who will step forward to help us in future actions overseas?” they asked.
Immigrants to the US are also compelled not to turn their backs on those they left behind. “We must remember that all of these refugees were taken from their homes and from their families, and lost their possessions,” said Amal Osman, who emigrated from Egypt to the US with her family in 2006. “All they want is to live in a safe environment.”
Feras Jawish, his wife Raheb and their four-year-old son are Syrian refugees who arrived in Chicago 11 months ago after enduring two years in refugee status in Greece. All three traveled to Washington DC to attend the DC Rally 4 Refugees. “Refugees are not poor people. We all want to contribute and be part of this great country,” said Jawish, who was a physician in Damascus. “We were ecstatic when we learned we had been selected by the American immigration authorities to enter the US. Once we arrived in -Chicago, we were helped a lot by resettlement organizations such as Catholic Charities and by the Syrian-American community.”
Fatima Abby, a Saudi-born Somali-American, arrived in the US in 1998 with her parents and siblings. She now serves with the DC Health Department and recently returned from volunteering to assist refugees in Lesbos. “I am passionate about helping people,” she said. “When I went to Greece, I raised $4,800 to buy supplies for the refugees there. This was in addition to what I paid for my own ticket and expenses to be there.”
“We are all human,” she added. “We all need to open our doors to enable people to have a chance to obtain what so many Americans have – peace and security.”
“This is truly a matter of life and death. I know hundreds of people there who have been threatened because of their affiliation with the US,” summed up Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who served as US ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009 and in the same role in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012. He added: “The SIV program enables our brave partners to come to safety in the US because of the sacrifices they made on our behalf.”