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Seeking safe haven

Group seeks to bring 100 refugees to region yearly by Doug Thompson | May 22, 2016 at 1:11 a.m.
Faez Shamas Arso speaks May 12 in his home in Fayetteville. Arso fled Iraq with his wife and daughter to escape persecution by ISIS, leaving behind his job as an electrical engineer for the state rail company.

Arkansas took in about 1 out of every 1 million refugees who sought shelter worldwide last year — 13 of the 14.5 million refugees accounted for by the United Nations.

Refugee resettlement

Nine groups are registered with the U.S. State Department to resettle refugees within the country: the Church World Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries, the Ethiopian Community Development Council, HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), International Rescue Committee, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, and World Relief.

Source: Staff report

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A local group called Canopy NWA wants to raise that number despite a contentious atmosphere about the country’s obligation to alleviate what the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees has called a severely unfair burden on a few countries.

“This has to spread more, has to be shared more; otherwise the imbalances will cause knee-jerk reactions, closures, rejections, and, in the end, we will fail in our responsibility to help refugees,” commissioner Filippo Grandi told the BBC on Monday. He also said the number of refugees worldwide has probably grown to 20 million.

Canopy NWA’s goals are not large-scale.

“We’re talking about one or two families a month,” Frank Head of Catholic Charities said at the group’s May 4 meeting. “People wouldn’t even notice if we didn’t talk about it.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is one of the nine charitable organizations authorized to accept refugees into the country through agreements with the U.S. Department of State.

The group operates in Northwest Arkansas through Catholic Charities Immigration Services. Catholic Charities sent a representative to the May 4 meeting, held at the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville. So did the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, another of the nine authorized groups.

Nina Zelic, director for refugee services for the Lutheran organization, told the dozen interested attendees her group is evaluating the region as a potential site for opening another chapter.

It will take months, with several more meetings to be held over the summer, before the Lutheran group makes a decision, Zelic said in a later telephone interview.

“We don’t have more than 30 refugees a year come to Arkansas because we’re what’s called a ‘family reconnection’ state only,” said Clint Schnekloth, lead pastor at Good Shepard Lutheran and an organizer for Canopy NWA.

“A refugee can only come here if he already has a family member living here. What we’re trying to do is make Northwest Arkansas a site where a family can move to even if they don’t already have someone living here,” he said.

The number of 13 from last year comes from figures kept by the State Department.


“I’ve seen estimates as high as 11.5 million” refugees needing a home in another country, said Patrick Gallaher, spokesman for Catholic Charities state headquarters in Little Rock. Then the Syrian civil war broke out in 2013 and created another 4.8 million, according to the United Nations.

That wave of immigrants flooded American allies in Europe, leading to an international call for the United States to do more. In September, President Barack Obama committed the country to taking in 10,000 by Oct. 1 of this year.

His actions stirred misgivings throughout the United States and in Arkansas.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson was one of 20 governors who announced he would oppose the use of any facility or installation in his home state as a Syrian refugee center, citing safety concerns. He doubts a large number could be effectively and rapidly checked to screen out security threats, he said.

Bringing a large number of Syrians to the United States in a group also would be a severe cultural upheaval for them, he said.

Arkansas has a history with refugees. The federal government has twice picked Fort Chaffee in Fort Smith — after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975 and again for Cubans in 1980 — as a relocation center for refugees with little consultation with state and local authorities, Gallaher said.

“I think that being a small state with a small population means that we’re taken advantage of,” Gallaher said.

In a recent telephone interview, Hutchinson said he does not object to what Canopy NWA wants to do privately.

“What you told me today is more information than the federal government’s ever given me on refugee resettlement,” Hutchinson said after hearing a brief account of the Canopy NWA meeting in a May 12 telephone interview.

“All we get from the State Department is after-the-fact information of who was resettled in Arkansas without many details,” he said.

“Arkansas has a history of welcoming refugees, from Vietnam to Central America,” the governor said. “My challenge has been with the piecemeal information we get. We need a strong process with some assurance that the security checks have been done.”

The U.N. commissioner can refer a refugee to the State Department and request he be accepted for resettlement. An extensive screening process by the U.N. must take place before that referral is made, including background checks.

If the State Department considers that case, the subject goes through another round of similar steps. In all, there are 18 steps to entering the United States as a refugee — steps that take a year and a half to complete if all goes perfectly, Zelic said.

“These are the most vetted immigrants accepted by the U.S.,” she said.

The largest group is the broad categories of people fleeing genocidal conflicts in Africa, she said, but the problem is worldwide.


“It’s important to get the terminology right,” Gallaher said.

Much of international law on refugees was written in the 1950, after the massive shifts brought about by World War II, he said. The last major revisions to those laws were made in the late 1960s.

A “refugee” as defined by international law is someone who has fled his country of origin because he is persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or because of his politics. About one in a hundred refugees is ever resettled, according to the United Nations.

Faez Shamas Arso of Fayetteville is one.

Arso left Mosul shortly before ISIS captured the northern Iraqi city in June 2014. His cousin, Polis Iskander, stayed as a pastor at the Eastern Orthodox Church, Arso said in a May 12 interview. ISIS executed the pastor, one of the estimated 2,000 people killed shortly after the extremist group captured the city of about 2.5 million, he said.

“Not anyone who was Christian wanted to become a Muslim,” Arso answered when asked why he nor other members of his family didn’t convert to Islam, as ISIS wanted. “Our religion is very strong with Jesus. We cannot leave Jesus.”

Until he left, Arso was chief electrical engineer at the Mosul railway station for the Iraqi State Railways, a 1,200-mile network that stretched the length of Iraq from Mosul in the north to the Persian Gulf.

“If there was an accident, I’d work a 24-hour day,” he said.

After work, he would sit at a computer and fill out the forms as he sought refuge in the United States, he said.

One of his sons had worked as a civilian translator for the U.S. Army. That son already had left the country at the Army’s suggestion and with Army assistance resettled in Fayetteville. A younger son was shot through both legs by attackers seeking to kill him in retaliation for his brother’s cooperation, Arso said.

The fact he had a son already in the United States helped greatly in getting out of Iraq, he said. Still, the process took three years.

His family scattered in the meantime. Another son made it to Germany, a brother is in northern Iraq, another in France and a third is in Australia, he said. He has one sister in Lebanon and another in Jordan, he said.

His family took very little when it left Iraq. The pictures on the walls of its Fayetteville apartment are hand-painted by a daughter, Ruaa Shamas Arso. She graduated college with a degree in fine arts and was a high school art teacher in Mosul. Now she works at Walmart.

Faez Arso is unemployed and said that’s the worst part of his new life.

“I worked in my country very hard. Now I have nothing to do.”

Northwest Arkansas is very welcoming — “Everyone is good here,” he said — but it is a tough job market for a 65-year-old man who has spent much of the past year learning the language.

The lack of an outlet for a refugee’s skills is an very common dilemma, Zelic said.

“We need jobs, and we need houses” for refugees, she said.

Also a car or some other transportation, added Mohja Kahf, a literature professor at the University of Arkansas, an author and a native of Syria.

She has hosted immigrant families in her home and seen their experiences firsthand, she said in a telephone interview.

“The lack of public transportation and walkability is a major issue,” Kahf said. The city’s walking trail system does not reach enough of the city, she said.

“You need to have a car. Also, there’s no network of public transportation linking to other cities in the state. If you want to go to Little Rock by bus, you have to be at the bus station at 2 a.m.”

A check of local bus schedules on Wednesday confirmed a departure time of 1:55 a.m.


The United States takes in about 85,000 refugees a year. Although Obama committed to accepting another 10,000 from Syria, only one-fifth of had arrived by mid-April. The State Department and refugee advocate groups blame factors ranging from insufficient staff to the lengthy security checks required.

The Syrian crisis is getting the most attention recently because it has sparked a political crisis in Europe, Gallaher said. Germany, for instance, has a national population of about 80 million. The 1 million refugees have a big impact there.

“That’s a big stone to throw into the middle of your pond,” he said.

Other countries such as Turkey and Greece have even larger refugee or migrant populations relative to the domestic population and less resources than wealthy Germany to deal with the situation, according to news accounts.

So when the United States agrees to take 10,000 refugees and then cannot make good on that pledge, it causes resentment overseas, Gallaher said.

“We need an example of us acting in solidarity with them,” he said of Europe. “It’s been a very tepid example.”

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., is a frequent critic of President Obama regarding national security. Yet there are refugees in Syria he would welcome as neighbors, and he is pushing to allow another 10,000 more than the 10,000 the president promised to shelter, he said.

His “Religious Persecution Relief Act” would accelerate the approval process for the 10,000 additional refugees a year his bill would allow in for the next five years.

Critics of the bill include President Obama, who says it favors Christian refugees over those in other religions.

Cotton responded in an telephone interview May 10 his bill would redress unintended but real discrimination against Christians and other religious minorities in the region. That bias against minorities is obvious in refugee figures from the State Department, he said.

State Department Refugee Processing Center data shows one Christian of any doctrine was among the 220 Syrian refugees admitted in the country in the two weeks ending April 25, according to a check of the data after Cotton’s interview.

Since November, less than one-half of 1 percent of Syrian refugees admitted to the United States are Christian, those figures show. This compares to a Christian population of about 10 percent in Syria, according to the latest available figures.

Religious minorities are among the most heavily persecuted in Syria, Cotton said, with many forced to flee to refugee camps in other countries. The problem is that a member of a religious minority who comes forward to the U.N. refugees centers are, in effect, openly declaring that they are a minority that is not trusted by either side in Syria’s civil war, the senator said.

His proposal would allow them to go to U.S. embassies and other U.S. facilities and ask for admittance to the U.S. from there. The bill also would drop the requirement for those refugees to go through the U.N. screening process, which has many of the same steps as the U.S. screening.

Syrian religious minorities are members of closeknit groups that are easier to check for security purposes, he said.

“With the belt-and-suspenders security built into this bill, I would be comfortable having someone who would come in as a neighbor to my family in Dardanelle,” Cotton said.

Kahf, however, said the effect of Cotton’s bill would make more distinctions between Syrians, furthering a long-sought goal of dictator Bashar al-Assad, Kahf said.

Assad has done everything he can to set once-peacefully co-existing groups against each other, Kahf said. The nonviolent protests against his regime began with chants of “One, One, One” of unity against his attempts to divide them into rival factions, she said.

“We just don’t need policies that further exacerbate or fuel sectarianism,” Kahf said. “Policies should redress human rights and be on the side of equality and justice without regard to sect or ethnicity.”

Cotton’s Senate Bill 2708 was introduced March 17 and assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee. No date for review of the bill has been set.


Canopy members have been busy meeting local leaders, Schnekloth said.

“We have a long list of stakeholders we’re talking to,” he said. “We’re going to talk to elected leaders and others in industry and in the community, in housing and health care.”

More meetings are planned, he said.

“We’ve had an amazingly good response,” Schnekloth said. “If our application is accepted by the State Department, it will be after the first of November before we can accept our first refugee family. We’re talking about one or two families a month, so perhaps three or four before Christmas.”

Schnekloth estimated the effort could bring about 100 people a year into the region, which would require a lot of private support, both from grant giving and from individual donors. Membership is not restricted to faith-based groups, he said.

“If your neighborhood group or your civic club, or the people in your office want to become a co-sponsor, that’s fine.”

Any refugee settled in the U.S. is on a path to citizenship that takes about five years, Schnekloth said.

“We want to do more than just give them a place to land and be safe, although that’s the first priority.”

Refugee resettlement

Nine groups are registered with the U.S. State Department to resettle refugees within the country: the Church World Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries, the Ethiopian Community Development Council, HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), International Rescue Committee, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, and World Relief.

Source: Staff report

Doug Thompson can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWADoug.

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