Syrian refugees resettled in US face challenges, uncertainty

DETROIT, US: Syrians fleeing civil war violence in their home country continue to constitute the largest refugee population in the world, data shows, with many seeking refuge in the US. Many Syrian refugees, however, are finding settlement in the US challenging.

“I can’t stay here! I want to go back. Life is hard here,” exclaimed Raghad, a pregnant refugee who was recently admitted to the US from Syria with the help of activist Nada Kourdi, co-founder of Community Helpers USA in Michigan.

Raghad and her family were among the few Syrians who were able to enter the US after fleeing violence back home.

According to the UNHCR, Syria remains the main country of origin of refugees worldwide due to the ongoing civil war that began in 2011, with their number estimated to be around 6.7 million in 2020. Of those, only around 23,000 were admitted to the US. A recent Department of State report indicated that around 11,411 people entered the US through the Refugee Admissions Program in the fiscal year 2021, the lowest rate in 40 years.

In the past, the US led the world in refugee resettlement numbers. Over 200,000 refugees were admitted in 1980, which was the year the US adopted The US Refugee Act of 1980. However, the number of refugees, with at least 95 percent of them coming from Somalia, Iran, and Syria, declined sharply, from a high of more than 30,000 in 2016 to slightly more than 200 in 2018.

These low rates have raised concern among immigration advocates following the move by former US President Donald Trump to reduce the number of refugees allowed into the country and institute a series of measures to limit those eligible for asylum.

The previous administration restricted the travel of nationals from a number of countries due to an alleged high risk of terrorists traveling to the US. Among those frequently targeted by the restrictions were Somalians and Syrians, activists and refugee agency leaders said.

President Joe Biden’s administration, however, increased the limit for refugee resettlement in 2021, from the remarkably low figure of 15,000 set by Trump to 62,500. Biden also pledged to resettle a further 125,000 in 2022. However, the slow pace of reviving the resettlement system and other challenges in the pandemic era are making this impossible to achieve in 2021.

Michigan was one of the top two states to accept Syrian refugees in 2017, until Trump issued an order blocking their placement in the US. Today, under the Biden era, the state has seen an influx of Afghan refugees, with Michigan among the top 10 states receiving and hosting Afghans.

Michigan admitted 30,467 refugees from 52 countries since 2010, according to the US Department of State. The highest quota is from Iraq, constituting 52 percent of those admitted. Syria ranked in fourth position, with 8 percent. The state is expected to be a key player in the effort to resettle refugees seeking a new start after the Afghanistan War ended in recent months.

Erica Quealy, deputy communications director for the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, told Arab News: “Michigan remained among the top two states for Syrian placements. We committed to placing Syrian refugees in our local resettlement agency abstract proposals submitted to the federal DOS. However, we do not know how many until they are scheduled for assignment and have arrived at Michigan resettlement agencies.”

Refugees usually face challenges in terms of acceptance by their surrounding community. In response to a question regarding security concerns related to refugee arrival, Eboney L. Stith, communications representative in Michigan for the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, told Arab News that “there are high-security coordination efforts among federal and local authorities in Michigan and partnerships with the federal Department of State and Office of Refugee Resettlement.”

Quealy explained that “Michigan offers a wide range of integration and employment support services for families to enable them to overcome the trauma and loss they might have experienced and to integrate them in the local community.”

For refugees like Raghad, however, coping with the challenges of resettling in the US has proved difficult, as Kourdi explained.

Women refugees quickly discover that they have suddenly become the breadwinner for the family because job opportunities for male refugees are scarce. Consequently, family income is far lower than what they had previously experienced.

Raghad started a catering business to replace the lost income and to help her husband, who was working hard but barely able to pay the family bills.

The anxiety stemming from the experience of fleeing a war zone and resettling in an unfamiliar environment may also fuel depression, compounded by the uncertainty of being in civic limbo, Kourdi explained. Will they remain in the US or return home?

Many local and federal authorities were unable to provide accurate and up-to-date information on how many Syrian refugees will be admitted to the US in 2022. 

Mayson Habhab, associate immigration attorney, explained to Arab News: “In general, you will eventually see more Syrian refugees enter the US with the Biden administration because he has increased the total number of refugees from 15,000 to 125,000 for the fiscal year starting in October.”

She said there was a downside, however.

“I do not foresee special humanitarian programs being created for Syrian refugees similar to those for Afghans,” Habhad said, “as the latter are not currently being admitted as refugees but are being accepted under humanitarian programs, which enable them to come in large numbers during a short period of time and receive more benefits.”

Not all is bleak, though.

Dr. Nahed Ghazoul, a Syrian academic and activist for refugees currently working at Paris Nanterre University, spoke to Arab News.

“Um Qusay is a Syrian refugee who was living in Jordan with her son and who then relocated to the US,” Ghazoul said.

“Despite all the difficulties, she has managed to establish a cooking business, and her son now speaks almost perfect in English and has been admitted to a local university.”