Escaping, not infiltrating: The truth about Syrian refugees and national security

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click to enlarge YEARNING TO BREATHE FREE: Syrian refugee children celebrate upon reaching Lebanon. - creative commons
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YEARNING TO BREATHE FREE: Syrian refugee children celebrate upon reaching Lebanon.

As with all confusing and unfathomably brutal human acts, the aftermath of the Paris attacks has bred xenophobia and misinformation as we try to wrap our collective brain around it all. In the U.S., much of the ire has been directed toward the 10,000 refugees from Syria bound for our shores in the coming months as they attempt to escape a bloody and convoluted conflict that has displaced millions.

Social media feeds are rampant with racist rants about them; otherwise seemingly reasonable people are calling these families everything from terrorists to goat fuckers. The country’s most conservative governors, including Florida Governor Rick Scott, are doing everything in their power to block the refugees’ arrival (though there’s not much they can do).


The fear seems to be that Islamic State terrorists will be among those who come, using the mass influx of Middle Easterners to infiltrate America unnoticed.

To help dispel some of this misinformation, we spoke to Sam Sipes, CEO of Lutheran Services Florida, a Tampa-based organization that counts welcoming and placing refugees from across the globe as one of its chief responsibilities. The organization helped 275 refugees resettle in the Tampa Bay area last year alone.

“Basically, you pick up the newspaper and you see where there’s chaos and turmoil and upheaval, typically those are places where there are likely to be refugees,” Sipes said.

The agency expects its first set of Syrian refugees by the end of the year, assuming the effort to bring them in isn’t blocked.

Sipes, whose organization has been placing refugee families for over three decades, has said there is a lot most Americans don’t know about the process of becoming a refugee, particularly one bound for the U.S.

The U.S. has taken in thousands of refugees from across the globe, and the process of placing families is long and in-depth. Syria is having the worst refugee crisis we have seen in decades, and the U.S. is taking in but a tiny fraction — less than a tenth of a percent — of those who have fled. Of that tiny fraction, Florida is expected to take in 425 (at most). And all will undergo thorough background checks through the Department of Homeland Security.

“The Syrian situation, first of all it’s probably the worst humanitarian crisis since of its nature since World War II,” Sipes said. “There are 13 million people who have fled in fear for their lives because of their political and religious beliefs. It’s really unprecedented since World War II. It’s huge. And I understand people’s concern about security, but the U.S. vets refugees like no other immigrant group. It’s an 18-month process.”

When someone flees his or her country and seeks refuge elsewhere, the U.N. has its own process for granting refugee status. Historically, that usually happens in a refugee camp in a country that borders the one they’re fleeing.

If they meet certain criteria, they are referred for possible resettlement in the U.S. The 13-step U.S. security screening process, which includes multiple security clearances, an in-person interview, a medical screening and cultural orientation, would occur on top of that.

While many Syrian refugees have been able to cross borders into European countries, getting to the U.S. is a lot more difficult. Not only does clearance take months or even years, but they also have to cross an ocean. It’s not as if they can walk across a border.

“These are the very people that are fleeing persecution from the people that are creating havoc and chaos in Syria,” Sipes said. “It’s not like in Europe, where you have hundreds of thousands of people fleeing across borders. These are individuals who are waiting in line, over an extensive period of time, an average of 18 months, to be fully vetted through all the various security channels that they’re vetted through.”

If they come to the states, most have almost no possessions.

“Typically they’ll show up with all their worldly belongings in a plastic bag,” Sipes said.

They are taken to an apartment, furnished with donated furniture, and within a few days the agency will help them find employment. The federal government offers just over a thousand bucks per refugee on a one-time basis, and agencies like Lutheran Services help families cover their basic needs on top of that temporarily, agency staffers said.

Again, they come from a place where they would otherwise have been killed for their political or religious beliefs, to a place where that sort of thing doesn’t happen — or isn’t supposed to happen, anyway. Those who come here have demonstrated that they want to be here, and want to make the most of the second chance they have.

That means they become business owners as well as church or community leaders, Sipes said. So there’s probably not a lot of America-hatin’ going on.

“Those individuals now are pillars of the community,” he said. “They’re business owners and people who have really made an incredible contribution to the Tampa Bay area.”

In the Tampa Bay area, Sipes says, refugees aren’t hard to find. Countries they’ve fled include Vietnam, Ethiopia, Somalia and, in recent years, Ukraine.

“If you really want to understand the American dream, talk to a refugee,” he said. “Because they get it. They’ve waited for years to have the ability to come here. They see the opportunity, the freedom. The words they use to explain their American experience is the kind of stuff that’s written in civics books.” 

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