Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpA baby boy toddled onto my daughter’s front yard in North Arlington this month. Badly in need of a wardrobe change, the kid was alone and crying.

With no parent in sight, my daughter – herself the mother of a two-year-old – sought to comfort the child as passing motorists also stopped to help. As the police arrived, a frantic mother appeared and scooped up the baby for whom she had been scouring the neighborhood.

It turned out the family were newcomers from Syria. Among the fortunate who choose Arlington, where, in a grass-roots response to the Trump administration’s immigration restrictions, many locals have spent $32 to erect yard signs that read, in three-languages: “No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”

On June 21, World Refugee Day, I drove to an unprepossessing building on South Highland St. to hear a panel organized by the Ethiopian Community Development Council, Inc.

After a showing of a powerful documentary “Warehoused,” about refugees trapped in a vast camp in Kenya, an academic and several immigrants described the hardships and aspirations of refugees who make it here.

One Sudanese woman, now an Arlingtonian, stressed the contrast of growing up without seeing white people and feeling that life in a two-bedroom home with seven people was “perfect.”

The Ethiopian council is one of nine resettlement nonprofits authorized by the State Department. Founded in 1983 by Tsehaye Teferra, it seeks to “increase awareness within the wider community and among mainstream organizations about issues of concern to the newcomer community in general and to African refugees and immigrants in particular.”

Why Arlington? I asked Sarah Zullo, managing director of the council’s D.C. African Community Center. “Arlington is extremely diverse and welcoming to multiple ethnicities,” she said. “People here recognize the need for social services for families using different languages, and its proximity to Washington, D.C., was attractive.”

The downside is that Arlington is expensive to live in.

As an official resettlement agency that receives $1,125 from the federal government for each refugee, the council widened its Africa focus to help arrivals from Afghanistan, Iraq, China, Burma, Nepal, Colombia, Cuba and El Salvador. “We’re multicultural and multi-religious,” added Zullo, who came to Arlington from Denver in 2012 and speaks Amharic, French, Spanish and English.

The council has been working “hand in hand” with the nearby Pentagon to resettle “special immigrant visa” holders – mostly well-educated Afghans who helped the U.S. military as war-zone interpreters.

Dependent on donors and volunteers, the council pushes the message that “there’s a place for you if you work hard and put in effort. The opportunities to own a car and send your children to school are tremendous,” Zullo said. Many start restaurants or drive taxis — “you don’t have to be rich and powerful.”

The council criticizes President Trump’s March executive order restricting immigration and his travel ban now tangled in the courts. “The silver lining is that since the election, the number of people in the community who want to help has grown,” particularly at churches and synagogues, Zullo said. That enhances the council’s capacity.

“On television, people see people jumping on a boat,” but the actual vetting process takes two years. Zullo said. “The U.S. is the best place to resettle because you can be part of a larger community with a chance to hold onto your culture.”

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Retired Arlington Treasurer Frank O’Leary and Del. Patrick Hope have been puzzling over why – precisely – Arlington separated from Alexandria in 1920.

Hope’s researcher in Richmond found that the bill cleared the Assembly March 16 of that year, changing Alexandria County to Arlington County without altering citizen rights or duties to the state constitution.

I then found a three-paragraph story in the Washington Post from March 18, on page 3, and a squib at the bottom of page 1 of the Evening Star, March 17. Gov. Westmoreland Davis signed the bill introduced by Del. Charles T. Jesse to “end confusion.” The Post noted Arlington’s government was already seated at the “Alexandria Courthouse” on “Fort Myer Heights.” The change had approval from residents of both the city and county.