The questions surrounding refugees from the Middle East and other parts of the world will soon come to Arkansas as Canopy Northwest Arkansas works to bring 100 or more refugees from around the world to the region.
A refugee is defined by international law as a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her own home country because of a well-founded fear of persecution due to race, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, religion or national origin. The United Nations’ Refugee Agency, UNHCR, estimates that, in 2015, 65.3 million refugees worldwide were forcibly displaced from their homes as a result of persecution and conflict.
In September 2015, the White House announced that the United States would admit 85,000 refugees, with 10,000 of those being from Syria, during the fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, 2016. In the coming fiscal year, the Obama administration has said it will resettle 110,000 refugees in the United States.
Following the White House statement on refugees, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson issued a statement opposing Syrian refugees being brought to the state.
“Syria is a war torn country and the United States will support our European friends in fighting ISIL in Syria and elsewhere; however, this is not the right strategy for the United States to become a permanent place of relocation. Again, I will oppose Arkansas being used as such a relocation center,” Hutchinson noted in September 2015. “The hardships facing these refugees and their families are beyond most of our understanding, and my thoughts and prayers are with them, but I will not support a policy that is not the best solution and that poses risk to Arkansans.”
‘GREAT JOBS’ FOR REFUGEES
In response to news publicity about the global refugee crisis, concerned residents in Northwest Arkansas (NWA) began meeting in January and formed Canopy Northwest Arkansas, a 501(c)3 non-profit with the mission of settling refugees in NWA.
“We consulted with refugee agencies operating nationally and we learned that there’s a need for new communities to open up to refugees. So we started looking into what it might look like for refugees to come to NWA and what we found is that our community has an incredible capacity to welcome refugees and help them really thrive here,” said Emily Linn, director of Canopy Northwest Arkansas.
Linn cited the growing economy in NWA as a reason refugees would do well.
“We have great jobs for folks who don’t even speak English, for example, in the manufacturing or poultry processing industry or agriculture. We also have great jobs and we have a need for people to come and work in very high skilled jobs,” she said. “For instance, we have a brand new hospital opening up in Springdale, Arkansas Children’s and the Washington Regional Hospital is growing and expanding, and there’s a need for very highly educated individuals as well, and so we have this wide variety of employment options.”
Canopy Northwest Arkansas partners with the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), one of nine national resettlement agencies that contract with the State Department to run the refugee resettlement program. LIRS is the agency that will assign refugees to Canopy after the refugees go through an extensive screening process, sometimes lasting more than two years.
FEDERAL APPROVAL, HUTCHINSON RESPONSE
Linn said the group got its final approval from the State Department on Sept. 30 and is waiting for the assignment of its first refugee family, which could come as early as mid-November. Over the course of the coming year, Linn said, they expect to settle 20 to 25 families in Northwest Arkansas.
After meeting with Canopy officials earlier this year, Gov. Hutchinson issued this statement on the issue: “States receive very little information from the federal government regarding refugee resettlement. That lack of communication is very concerning, especially when you consider the fact that the number one priority of governors is to keep their people safe. It’s important to know who’s coming in and from where. That’s why I met with Canopy NWA earlier this year because it’s important to establish and to keep an open line of communication between the state and organizations like Canopy. The reality is that while a vast majority of refugees who come to our country are truly fleeing danger in their home country, everyone coming in as a refugee should be properly vetted to protect our security. Compassion should help drive what we do as Americans, not blind us from the very real dangers that exist in today’s world.”
Linn said the LIRS projects the biggest population of refugees that will come into the United States in the coming year, and so possibly will be settled here, is from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The second most common population, she said, will be people from Iraq and Afghanistan who worked for the United States Armed Forces in such jobs as translators or drivers. Because of their service, they are in danger in their country and so they can be resettled here. The third group is Syrians, fleeing the war in their country.
“Last year the President made a goal of settling 10,000 Syrian refugees. However, there is no target regarding Syrians this year, so I don’t know if the U.S. will continue to bring in Syrians,” Linn said. “I think it will depend on the political situation.”
Linn said that the process to come into the United States is a tightly regulated, methodical process and that, according to the UNHR website, the average wait time to be resettled in the States is 17 years.
Sarit Zehavi, a former Israeli military intelligence officer, was in Northwest Arkansas Oct. 13 speaking to business leaders at the Cross Church Summit. She owns a company that educates business and political leaders on the security challenges of the Middle East.
Her family home is located six miles from Lebanon’s border and 34 miles from Syria in northern Israel. Across the region she said there are at least 7 flags over various zones including ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Syrian Opposition, Palestinian Jihad and Syrian refugees. Zehavi’s paternal grandmother was a refugee from Syria.
As an expert on refugees in the Middle East, Zehavi, said any region considering the settlement of refugees must do their own diligence on the front-end to make sure all security measures are followed.
“I truly believe not all refugees have terrorist ties and everyone deserves a chance to live in a peaceful democracy, Zehavi told Talk Business & Politics after her Northwest Arkansas speech.
Zehavi said refugees can in most cases be assimilated into a democratic culture but there has to be education, discussion and security measures followed by the entire community in the process.
Zehavi said her paternal grandmother fled her homeland of Damascus, Syria, in 1946 because it was unsafe to remain in that Jewish neighborhood.
“When I say she fled, she left the dinner on the stove and took two babies and left the country,” Zehavi said. “Many of those Jewish families came to the United States at that time.”
(Talk Business & Politics Senior Analyst Kim Souza contributed to this report.)