Omar Alawadh, right, sits with his children, from left, Abdul Jabbar, 7; Hamman, 10, and Taiba, 4, at their Kenwood Gardens Apartments home. Mr. Alawadh, who moved with his wife and three children to Toledo in September, waited over a year for refugee status.
(The Blade/Shelby Kardell)
Refugee resettlement coordinators in Ohio say they are continuing their work despite Monday’s barrage of announcements from governors, including Ohio’s John Kasich and Michigan’s Rick Snyder, who expressed concerns or outright called for an end to Syrian refugee arrivals in their states after Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris.
Staffers at US Together, Toledo’s only refugee resettlement agency, are going ahead with plans as Syrian families continue to arrive in Toledo. Toledo resettlement coordinator Corine Dehabey said November has been the busiest month for the agency. She is expecting another Syrian family to arrive Friday.
In fiscal year 2015, Ohio received 3,040 refugees from all over the world, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services said. Of those, 48 were from Syria. Lucas County by far has taken the most Syrians in the state, with 32 Syrians in fiscal year 2015. Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, took 15.
“It’s disappointing,” Ms. Dehabey said of the governors’ announcements. “The good people who are trying to seek safety are paying the price of the bad people. It’s not fair.”
She said some of her clients fear being labeled as terrorists, and said most people don’t understand the intense vetting process that refugees face before arriving in the United States.
Ohio Governor John Kasich. (The Blade)
At least 23 governors made statements ranging from expressions of general concern to calls to close their states’ borders to Syrian refugees. Gov. Kasich on Monday said he is against admitting more Syrian refugees to the United States. Immigration experts said, however, that under the Refugee Act of 1980, governors cannot legally block refugees from settling in their communities.
“The governor doesn’t believe the U.S. should accept additional Syrian refugees because security and safety issues cannot be adequately addressed,” Kasich spokesman Jim Lynch said in an email. “The governor is writing to the President to ask him to stop, and to ask him to stop resettling them in Ohio. We are also looking at what additional steps Ohio can take to stop resettlement of these refugees.”
Despite lacking authority to block refugees, many governors discussed safety concerns after reports that one of the terrorists in the Paris attacks Friday that killed 132 was found with a Syrian passport. Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
The Toledo office is one of three US Together branches in Ohio. The others are in Columbus and Cleveland.
US Together founder Nadia Kasvin, who works in Columbus, said closing state borders is a mistake. She called refugees “the most vulnerable of the vulnerable,” who come to the United States fleeing violence.
“Who can say, ‘Don’t come, die where you are?’” she said. “I think we are better than that.”
Refugees who come to the United States have been thoroughly questioned and vetted by several security agencies, she said, including the U.N. refugee agency, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the U.S. State Department.
“If there is anything in the case that might need further review, the cases are immediately put on hold,” she said. “I think this country takes processing of refugees and security clearance very seriously … to prevent any acts of violence happening.
“It’s about educating people, including our state government, about the process. People fear what they don’t understand. If we can dispel the myth that people drop from the sky and show up on our doors. … This is a myth. It’s a very thorough process.”
Ms. Kasvin and Ms. Dehabey say they have heard no directive from the state that would change their normal operations and will continue to help refugees settle in Ohio.
Mr. Kasich is scheduled to outline his national security strategy at the National Press Club in Washington today. Speaker of the Ohio House Clifford A. Rosenberger issued a statement supporting the governor:
“As speaker, I agree with Governor Kasich’s statement that, at this time, we should not allow Syrian refugees into Ohio,” he said. “As we again saw this past weekend, these are very challenging times around the world, and it is critical that public leaders take precautionary steps to keep United States’ citizens safe. In order to protect all Americans, we must ensure that there is a stringent vetting process and appropriate security measures in place to keep danger and terror off of American soil. The protection of Ohio’s families is paramount. Therefore, I stand ready and willing to help Governor Kasich in our united mission to keep all Ohioans and Americans safe.”
Mr. Kasich’s statement was not as strong as Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s, who said Sunday he would suspend refugee resettlements in the state.
“Michigan is a welcoming state and we are proud of our rich history of immigration. But our first priority is protecting the safety of our residents,” he said in a statement. “Given the terrible situations in Paris and Beirut, I’ve directed that we put on hold our efforts to accept new refugees until the U.S. Department of Homeland Security completes a full review of security clearances and procedures.”
Mr. Snyder clarified Monday that refugees who recently arrived or those who have been cleared to come to Michigan and are expected soon will still be allowed into the state.
Among the refugees who arrived in the region before calls to block the arrival of Syrians is Omar Alawadh, a Syrian refugee who arrived in Toledo in September with his wife and three children.
Mr. Alawadh previously asked to be identified by only his first name for safety reasons, but said he feels more secure after settling in.
Mr. Alawadh, speaking in Arabic through an interpreter, said he and his family waited in Jordan for more than a year to be granted refugee status. He was interviewed several times, and said his story had to match every time he was questioned. He said he saw many people denied refugee status because of things that came up in the background checks.
He said he is not scared in Toledo, and though some might have misconceptions about Syrians, he has been treated with kindness here.
“The Syrian people are very tired, very tired of war,” he said. If Syrians who have lost everything already are forced to cross the sea into Europe or stay where they are, “it means that their future will be lost.”
Contact Lauren Lindstrom at email@example.com, 419-724-6154, or on Twitter @lelindstrom.
This article first appeared in The Blade and toledoblade.com on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015, and was archived on Mideast in the Midwest on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015.