Syrian and Iraqi Refugees Getting Help From Those Already Here

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One-time refugees got the help they needed in the past. Now they’re “paying it forward.”
Shawn Neal/John Burger
TOPSHOTS A woman and her children look on as migrants and refugees wait to cross the Greece-Macedonia border in the rain on November 27, 2015 near Gevgelija. Over 200 migrants on November 26 tried to break through barbed wire fences to cross from Greece into Macedonia, which imposed new border restrictions last week, throwing stones at police, AFP reporters said. Since last week, Macedonia, which lies on the main migrant route to northern Europe, has restricted passage to only Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans who are considered war refugees. All other nationalities are deemed economic migrants and told to turn back. AFP PHOTO / ROBERT ATANASOVSKI / AFP / ROBERT ATANASOVSKI


It’s like the old concept “pay it forward.”

For decades, people from horrific conflicts around the world have been able to come to the United States under a program of screening by government agencies and resettlement assistance by non-profit organizations. The program has been operating without much attention until recently, when a combination of President Obama’s announcement that the nation would be ramping up the number of Syrian refugees admitted into the US and the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino led to questions about whether anyone is able to really screen refugees for Islamist terrorists.

But there are some groups stepping forward to make it easier for the newcomers.

Some refugees from the Bosnian wars of the 1990s who came to the United States are helping newcomers find a place to live.

“Many of them are now apartment owners,” said Paula Mann-Agnew, director of programs at Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Hartford, Conn. “We have two in particular that we call every once in a while to say, ‘Okay, we have two families coming in. What can you do to help us?’ And they’re like, ‘No problem.’ The gratitude is still there, and their willingness to work with us and help us.”

Mann-Agnew explained that once her agency knows there is a refugee family on its way to Connecticut, she and her team start getting ready to help them resettle. That includes finding a place for them to live. Families coming in under the program “don’t necessarily have social security numbers or credit cards, and we can’t do credit checks on them or anything a homeowner would want, but the [Bosnian landlords] say, ‘Okay, send them over.’”

Catholic Charities in Hartford has been doing refugee resettlement for some 60 years, she said, and lately, it has been helping to resettle mainly people from the Congo and Somalia. But there have also been several families from Syria and Iraq, including Christians. Many are traumatized and exhausted, but relieved to be in a safe place with a future that is more hopeful.

“When they get here it’s like a dream come true, and they’re so grateful and appreciative,” Mann-Agnew said. “And for some of them it’s their faith that has kept them consistent throughout the whole thing. We see a lot of that with all of the refugees. Faith becomes a really big part of the process.”

Though they are in a better place, it’s not an easy ride, said Chris George, executive director of the Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services in New Haven, Conn., a program of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, which recently resettled a Syrian family that had been rejected by the State of Indiana in the post-Paris attack atmosphere of caution.

“It’s a pretty demanding, tough process. Refugees cannot relax for very long. They have to hit the ground running,” he said. “We get their kids enrolled, help them to learn English. … They get rental assistance for only about three to five months from us before they are expected to get jobs and cover their own expenses.”

Another one-time refugee who is paying it forward is Joseph Kassab, founder and president of the Iraqi Christians Advocacy and Empowerment Institute, which offers assistance to religious minorities and refugees from Iraq. “I’ve done this work for the past 37 years, and I know how much it means to help a refugee. I myself was one, about 35 years ago. I was victim of discrimination by the Saddam regime.”

Kassab said his organization can help with the screening of Christian refugees from Iraq, who, he said, are “very peaceful people.”

“We can go to the Middle East and interview our people in their own language and ask them who their priest was there, and we know who that priest was,” he explained. “We can ask them where they got married, and we know where that church was. We know all these things because we come from there. I even ask them to recite prayers for me. … Or I ask them how Jesus was killed, what day he was killed, these kinds of things. Even deeper question: How many disciples wrote the Bible? A Muslim or a Kurd, there’s no way they would know these things.”

Whether the Obama Administration would welcome such assistance—for one thing, the president has said there would be no religious test for refugees—is another question. But Kassab’s organization offers “access to public benefits and programs, relief programs for the exploited and victims of torture, and family re-union solutions,” among other services for refugees.

Another Iraqi-American who assists Christians fleeing the Islamic State group and other threats in the Middle East is Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce and their non-profit arm, the Chaldean Community Foundation. They provide several programs for the displaced refugees in Detroit. It also advocates on behalf of Christians who are still in their native land.

“This is a humanitarian crisis beyond comprehension; it really requires a long-term solution in the Middle East, and we’ve been advocating for the creation of a no-fly zone or safe zone for the displaced communities,” Manna said. “We’re also asking Members of Congress and the Administration to strongly consider ethnic and religious minorities from the Middle East safe passage to America, so they can unite with some of their families here. They did this once before with the Iraqi Shi’ite community after the first Gulf war, but it’s not been considered for the Christians for some reason.”

John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.