In another of the myriad ways Arlington stands out from other parts of Virginia, our citizens are welcoming Syrian refugees.
Other jurisdictions—due to fear of terrorism, strapped budgets or politics—are offering less hospitality to the 10,000 who came as the U.S. share of the 4 million fleeing Syria’s war zone. That stunning conflict that has killed more than 400,000 and sent nearly 5 million across that battered Middle Eastern nation’s borders.
It’s been a year since the county board approved a nonbinding statement saying, “We firmly believe that responding to today’s urgent humanitarian crisis by serving as a new home for those seeking refuge is in keeping with both our nation’s tradition” and its 2007 resolution. The Human Service Department began offering such refugees who arrive classes in citizenship and English, job training, health screening and nutrition counseling.
Folks donated blankets and coats. Catholic Charities of Arlington, St. Ann’s Catholic Church and the Lutheran Refugee and Immigration Service expanded their ongoing outreach.
This year they were joined by is the congregation at St. George’s Episcopal Church on Fairfax Drive. In June, their social justice committee organized a series of Thursday night educational forums so “people could learn how to get involved,” one parishioner, management consultant Wendy Chan, told me. “It is the responsibility of the faith community to bring awareness of the plight of refugees, not just those from Syria, but around world.” Resistance to helping Syrians in the form of “negative rhetoric toward refugees, and talk of closing our borders to the Muslim world is quite disturbing,” she said.
At the three 90-minute forums at the St. George’s Parish Hall they brought in experts and representatives from the U.N. Refugee Agency, the State Department, and the Muslim community, as well as refugee speakers “to humanize the issue,” Chan said.
Such is how locals can tap into the crisis at multiple levels, especially the global work of such on-the-ground groups as Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children and U.S.-based chapters of SOS Children’s Villages.
The result in Arlington is more than 100 people of many faiths have signed up. They communicate on a Northern Virginia Friends of Refugees Google group and urge officials to drop the resistance. At the end of the forums, the rector of St. George’s Shearon Sykes Williams gave the congregation a “capstone sermon.”
The goal in Arlington is not to settle refugees here—too expensive, said parishioner Norma Kacen, retired from government relations at the National Education Association. The refugees tend to move to the outer suburbs such as Manassas, with help from such groups as the Ethiopian Community Development Council.
“The model is to get them jobs as soon as possible,” added Chan. “A lot are highly educated, brain surgeons and engineers. So the question is how not to waste these talents coming to the United States so they can continue and give back. We’re not asking them to do dishwashing or work at 7-11.”
The opponents of taking in refugees—many in the state legislature—“either don’t know or won’t accept the vetting process, which takes about two years,” Kacen said. “President Obama wants to increase the number, but that requires more funding,” and Congress has not been forthcoming. “When they come back after the election,” she said, “they’ll have to do something– good or bad.”
This election season seems to be missing Arlington’s usual proliferation of yard signs.
Could it be tepid support for two controversial presidential candidates? Are some supporters embarrassed? Reluctant to discuss touchy topics with neighbors?
Local Republicans, I’m told by communications director Christina Perez, couldn’t count on a supply from the atypical Trump national campaign.
Local Democrats, I’m told by party chairman Kip Malinosky, spent more money on the voter turnout ground game. A shipment of 2,000 signs, I’ve learned, just arrived for the final week.