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Syrian Americans push to allow refugee havens in US homes

CESME: A group of refugees, led by Turkish police, are escorted to buses in place of sailing to the Greek island of Chios via raft, at a beach in the western Turkish coastal town of Cesme, in Izmir province, yesterday.—AFP
CESME: A group of refugees, led by Turkish police, are escorted to buses in place of sailing to the Greek island of Chios via raft, at a beach in the western Turkish coastal town of Cesme, in Izmir province, yesterday.—AFP

NEW YORK: S yrian-American Lina Sergie Attar, a mother of two, has a spare bedroom in her suburban Chicago home, which she would like to use to host a Syrian refugee family. But like many Syrian-Americans willing to pay out of their own pockets to care for resettled refugees directly, she cannot.

For although the United States has promised to resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the coming year, this can only happen through government channels at present, prompting calls for change as the refugee crisis escalates. “I would absolutely host a family in my home if I could have that option,” said Attar, 40, who lives with her husband and pre-teen daughters in upscale Lake Forest, Illinois. If she lived a few hours drive further north in Canada, it could be a different story. The system there allows so-called private sponsorship of refugees.

As winter arrives, advocates in the United States are calling for a system like that in Canada where private citizens can buttress government efforts by footing the bill themselves. Under the US model, private donations can be made to non-government groups working with authorities to host refugees. But there is no way people can pick up the tab without going through this system.

Attar, who heads the Karam Foundation, a non-profit group providing aid for Syrians, supports the calls for a private sponsorship program in the United States. One of the 170,000-strong community of US residents of Syrian descent, Attar was raised in Syria but earned graduate degrees at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Her parents, both physicians, left Aleppo in 2012 due to the conflict and moved to Lake Forest with just four suitcases. This year, after taking a smuggler’s boat from Syria, her cousins trekked to Germany from Greece, sending photo updates of their blistered feet to worried relatives around the globe.

Syria’s war, which erupted in 2011, has killed some 250,000 people, uprooted 11 million from their homes and created more than 4 million refugees in a country of about 23 million people.

Since 2011, the United States has admitted some 1,900 Syrian refugees, according to the US Department of State. Meanwhile Canada has resettled roughly 2,600 Syrian refugees since the start of the conflict, mostly through private sponsorship, officials said. They joined the ranks of the more than 40,000 Canadians of Syrian descent.

For the duration of the sponsorship period, 12 months or until refugees become self-sufficient, Canadians who act as sponsors commit to providing them with a range of care, from lodging to clothing and introducing them to the community.
An organization called ‘Lifeline Syria’ is trying to help bring 1,000 Syrians to the Toronto area as permanent residents. More than 300 groups have formed to help through private sponsorship in just five months, the group said.

“The people are just lining up to try to get involved,” said spokesman Peter Goodspeed. “How to sponsor a Syrian” was the top query relating to the Syrian refugee crisis in Canada according to search engine Google for one 24-hour period in early September. Niskanen Center, a libertarian think-tank in Washington DC, is promoting private sponsorship in the United States.

“Even if this program is small, it will be a significant contributor to dealing with this issue,” said David Bier, its director of immigration policy. Among the politicians who support private sponsorship is Congressional Democrat John Conyers, whose Michigan district has been home to generations of Arab-born people.

But others in Washington oppose Syrians coming into the United States, saying they pose a security risk. Last month, a coalition led by the Syrian American Council sent a letter to Obama requesting private sponsorship.

It seeks an unlimited number of privately sponsored refugees and at least 100,000 government-sponsored refugees. Sponsoring groups would cover all costs for 18 months or until a refugee becomes self-sufficient.

Some organizations have refrained from joining the campaign for private sponsorship, including the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants which prefers to focus on calls to increase the government-sponsored number to 100,000.
“We feel the establishment of a new and separate avenue will dilute efforts to increase the number of Syrian refugee arrivals,” said spokeswoman Stacie Blake.

Campaigners say money is not lacking in the US Syrian-American community, which has hubs in Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit and New Jersey suburbs to the west of New York City. Nearly one in five hold graduate or professional degrees, and the median family income is more than 10 percent higher than that of the overall population, US Census Bureau data shows.
In Canada, the government estimates the costs of private sponsorship over a year begin at about CA$12,600 (US$9,572) for a single refugee and CA$29,700 (US$22,563) for a family of five.

“It could take a family from a situation of despair to building a new future, so it’s a worthwhile investment,” said Attar. But resettlement is more than a matter of dollars and cents and entails vetting refugees by means of interviews, medical exams and security checks, the US State Department said.

“Resettling refugees requires time, staff and other resources,” said spokeswoman Danna Van Brandt. – Reuters

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