The Syrian Civil War can trace its roots back to the arrest and torture of a few teenage boys in March 2011. They had spray-painted revolutionary slogans on a school wall in the city of Dara.
Observers are still divided on the youths’ motives. Were they really inspired by Arab Spring protests sweeping out of Tunisia and across the Middle East, or simply teenagers rebelling against authority?
Whatever the reason, demonstrators took to the streets. And when the security forces of President Basher Assad fired on and killed several, others replaced them. Protests went nationwide, and the government used even more brutal force to crush them. But by July of 2011 there were hundreds of thousands demonstrators across the country.
When the opposition took up arms, forming rebel brigades, Syria broke into the civil war that has raged ever since. Some estimates surpass 300,000 casualties, mostly Syrian soldiers and rebel fighters.
The growing conflict and sectarian violence between Sunni and Shite Muslims has driven the largest refugee exodus since World War II. More than 4 million people have fled Syria to its neighboring nations — Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. From there many have headed to supposedly safe havens in Europe. Nations like Hungary and Austria, declaring they’ve been overwhelmed, have tried to shut down their borders, while others have opened their arms. Germany, in particular, said it will resettle 800,000 over the next year from the Middle East’s violence-wracked countries, calling it a “moral duty.”
rnTepid U.S. response
The Obama administration’s response, on the other hand, has been called a “Band-Aid” for Syria. Since the civil war began almost five years ago, the United States has issued refugee visas to less than 1,500 Syrians.
In September, Secretary of State John Kerry announced a new plan, with the U.S. raising its figure for all refugees from 70,000 to 85,000 this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. He said the overall figure will include at least 10,000 Syrians. The total will climb to 100,000 in 2017, including even more Syrians.
“In light of this global emergency situation, we urge the United States to lead a comprehensive global initiative in partnership with European and other states to improve access to protections for refugees,” stated the Human Rights First organization.
Together with 14 other Democrats, Senator Richard J. Durbin from Illinois wrote a letter praising President Obama for his pledge to take 10,000 Syrian refugees. The congressman urged the president to admit 65,000 more Syrian aliens. Senator Chris S. Murphy of Connecticut said doing so little was risky.
“Do we think we make this country more safe from terrorism by showing a cold-heartedness to this refugee crisis?” he asked. “I think the answer is no.” — who said this?
Pope Francis has also weighed in on the issue. During his Sept. 24 address to Congress, he told senators and house representatives they must respond to the refugee crisis in a “humane, just and fraternal” way.
Human rights organizations have pointed out that the U.S. granted asylum to 111,000 Vietnamese refugees in 1979 and another 207,000 the next year. And during the Mariel boatlift, around the same time, the U.S. gave sanctuary to more than 120,000 Cuban refugees.
After Sept. 11, 2001, refugee resettlement in the United States dropped to 27,131 in 2002. Since then, however, numbers have steadily risen to 69,987 last year, close to the 70,000 cap.
But there has been plenty of opposition to the new U.S. plan, too.
“Few Americans want their country to take in more Syrian refugees, even though many believe the United States should do more to help those fleeing the Middle Eastern country’s brutal civil war,” concluded the authors of a Reuters/Ipsos poll done in mid-September. Some 35 percent of the people queried in the online survey flatly said the 10,000 number for the coming fiscal year was too high.
Also in September, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Chuck Grassley, and Congressman Bob Goodlatte, House Judiciary Committee chairman, claimed that the terrorist group Islamic State made it “abundantly clear” that they will use the refugee crisis as a subterfuge to enter the U.S.
“Now the Obama Administration wants to bring in an additional 10,000 Syrians without a concrete and foolproof plan to ensure that terrorists won’t be able to enter the country,” stated the lawmakers. “The administration has essentially given the American people a ‘trust me.’ That isn’t good enough.”
Rep. Peter T. King, Republican from New York, didn’t mince his hard-nosed opinion: “Our enemy now is Islamic terrorism, and these people are coming from a country filled with Islamic terrorists. We don’t want another Boston Marathon bombing situation.”
And this was before a Russian aircraft with 224 on board was likely brought down over Egypt by an Islamic State bomb on Oct. 31.
rn‘We’ve done this before’
Sam Samadi, resettlement program manager for Catholic Charities of Los Angeles, has already started gearing up his agency to accept war-torn Syrian refugees. He knows with limited resources it’ll be hard. But he also knows how Catholic Charities has handled wave after wave of refugees in the past, including tens of thousands after Vietnam fell and boat people fled Cuba, plus smaller numbers from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Burma, Libya and Ukraine, among others.
“We have the experience,” he said. “We’ve done this before.”
Samadi should know. He’s worked at Catholic Charities here for 27 years, and before that with Catholic Charities in Maine. And all of that time the 62-year-old refugee from Iran has been helping other refugees resettle in the U.S. Just last week he spoke with an official from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the nation’s largest agency doing resettlement, about resettling more than the 250 families from all over the world Catholic Charities has been approved for this year.
When the official asked if Catholic Charities of Los Angeles would be ready for the Syrians, Samadi said “definitely.” But he also pointed out how rent, groceries, gas — in short, the cost of living — was higher in Southern California. So his agency would need financial help from the USCCB.
“I want to receive more families, but there’s a limitation to our help,” he pointed out. “We need more funding.”
“We are aware of the cost of living in L.A. compared to other parts of the country,” was the reply. “But at this time we cannot assure you of anything. But we’re working on it.”
The USCCB administrator didn’t know how many Syrian refugees will be assigned to his agency. So it wasn’t clear how many will be sent to Los Angeles, a popular destination.
Samadi was also told none would be coming in January or February of 2016 as first thought. The arrival date had been pushed back to June or July.
The Catholic Charities resettlement manager admitted he was disappointed and feeling frustrated. Some 15 families had already called or emailed him wanting to sponsor a Syrian refugee family. But he now had to tell them when, where and how many were coming was up in the air.
“So my answer to all the individuals and parishes is just ‘wait’ until we know and then we’re going to call you,” he said. “I feel bad because the callers were all excited about being sponsors, but I have to tell them to wait.”
Then Samadi had another troubling thought. “Most think the families or individuals are Christian,” he said. “They think these people are Christian, which is wrong. They’re mostly Muslim, Sunni Muslims. So that could be a problem. But only one caller from Long Beach said, ‘No, we want a Christian family. That’s all we want.’”
The Catholic Charities worker hopes potential sponsors from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles won’t have this narrow mindset that associates being Muslim with terrorism. “The people who call me, I can go and meet with them,” he pointed out. “And the USCCB has already checked them [the refugees], too. But can I give them a 100 percent guarantee? Nobody can.”
Before our interview ended, he talked about his own flight after Shah Mohammed Reza of Iran was overthrown by the Islamic revolution in February of 1979. He was a young man, an Iranian Kurd, studying in India at the time. He knew his life would be in danger if he went home under the new regime of Ayatollah Khomeni. So he filed with the United Nations as a refugee and wound up in Portland, Maine, in 1985, where he found work with Catholic Charities.
“I feel for the Syrians,” he stressed. “I went through what they are going through, only I left differently.”
Samadi recalled how it was a long and difficult sojourn.
“I understand the need for security,” he said. “But we’re talking about a crisis that needs a crisis response. So, hopefully, people in the United States will open their hearts and arms to bring more refugees, Syrians and others, here.”