There are currently 65.3 million displaced persons around the world. In 2015, 24 people were forced to flee their homes every minute. This is a tragedy and represents a global crisis which affects all of us, not just those who have been displaced.
While the United States represents the wealthiest world nation by far, we have not taken in refugees equivalent to the numbers accepted by some other countries around the world. Part of this is by design, the vetting system for refugee admissions to the U.S. is rigorous and screening can take anywhere from 18-36 months before an individual or family is admitted. This is a costly and time-consuming process involving the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense, and multiple security agencies, but is important to ensure our national security. As the reader is no doubt aware, ISIS has taken advantage of the flow of refugees to smuggle fighters and launch attacks across Europe. The key difference is that European countries have not been able to properly screen refugees pouring over their land borders.
Some argue that extremist fighters could enter the United States posing as refugees and claim that their identifying documents were destroyed or left behind in their home country. While this concern should help focus our vetting strategies, it is important to recognize that Syrian and Iraqi refugees are specifically restricted from entering the U.S. through the refugee resettlement program if their identities cannot be positively verified. Rather than shouting at one another with divisive rhetoric, we should embrace any and all concerns as an opportunity for productive conversation. We are capable, as a nation, of finding innovative solutions to the problems that stand in the way of living up to our ideals.
One positive model comes from Integrated Refugee and Immigration Services (IRIS), a nonprofit based in Hartford, Connecticut, which contracts with the U.S. State Department to resettle refugees. While there are many such resettlement agencies throughout the U.S., IRIS offers programs to integrate refugees in a very unique way.
IRIS operates two programs of particular importance. The first, called the Cultural Companions Program, pairs community volunteers with individual refugees to practice “reciprocal hospitality” and actively seek to learn from one another. This not only helps the refugee build cultural competence and relevant skills, it provides them with friendship and by all accounts a sense of belonging. The second program, and the model I’d like to see replicated around the country, is referred to as Community Co-Sponsorship. Co-sponsorship allows a team of (at least 10) volunteers to help a refugee family resettle. The co-sponsors work together to fundraise between $4,000-10,000 to provide a family with secure affordable housing. They also help to collect furniture and other household items, enroll children in school, facilitate job searches, and perform other necessary tasks.
Both of these programs allow for the effective integration of refugees, and create trust in both the host community and the newly settled person or family. As the debate continues over refugee resettlement in the United States, let us acknowledge that the issue is not black and white. We all share in the security and prosperity of our nation, regardless of political persuasions. Programs like Integrated Refugee and Immigration Services can provide a hopeful path forward on a contentious issue.