Is New York City Ready for Syrian Refugees? - City Limits
02/16/2016 | News Articles
In September 2015 when President Obama made the controversial decision to call for 10,000 Syrian refugees to be resettled in the United States in 2016, Mayor de Blasio was quick to jump into the fray. Shortly after the announcement, de Blasio was one of 18 mayors to sign a petition encouraging Obama to accept even more refugees.
When anti-refugee rhetoric exploded in wake of the Paris attacks, de Blasio reiterated his commitment to keeping New York City open to Syrians while attacking conservatives like Donald Trump for Islamophobic statements.
Despite de Blasio's outspoken stance, New York City has not had the chance to welcome many Syrian refugees yet. Political gridlock and unparalleled levels of security screeningsfor applicants means Syrians have been slow to arrive in the country at all. Many wait over two years for approval. Even so, the prospect of more refugees arriving has advocates urging local and state officials to take a hard look at existing infrastructure for refugees. Aber Kawas, Youth Organizer at the Arab American Association of New York, says the thought of thousands more Syrians arriving in the U.S. keeps her up at night.
"We're not ready, honestly," says Kawas, "The refugees need more than a check and an apartment when they arrive. They need community support." Kelly Agnew-Barajas, director of refugee resettlement at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, says that the monetary support allotted for refugees is "breathtakingly low" and leaves refugees scrambling from the get-go. Currently, the federal government grants a one-time stipend of $1,125 per refugee, with the possibility of public assistance thereafter. After years of displacement—and paying the exorbitant fees necessary to secure safe passage out of Syria— many refugees are in dire financial straits by the time they arrive in the U.S. "Many are so worried about getting an income," says Agnew-Barajas, "they don't take time to learn English or get integrated. This makes things harder in the long run."
Stipends and grants are primarily the jurisdiction of the federal government, but de Blasio's office says it is doing its part to improve social services for refugees, in particular by strengthening communication between local government and the grassroots. Commissioner Nisha Agarwal of the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs told City Limits: "The United States has a long-standing tradition of welcoming refugees, and the de Blasio administration is committed to preserving that tradition." In addition, a city official says MOIA is "meeting with New York City refugee resettlement agencies to determine how the City can help connect refugees to City services and resources."
Agnew-Barajas, who joined other non-profit and government leaders in Albany on Monday for a quarterly meeting on issues of immigrant and refugee affairs, says de Blasio's administration has been responsive to their concerns. "You get the feeling that executive leadership is very invested in helping refugees get the support that they need." Agnew-Barajas says the Mayor's Office of Immigration Affairs has helped in responding to individual cases, although she admits, "there's still a lot of inefficiency in the general bureaucracy."
Susan Donovan, International Rescue Committee's Interim Director of Programs for New York and New Jersey, says that while the mayor's office has been proactive in offering support, "the nation's system is in need of an overhaul." As Agnew-Barajas points out, "most of the procedures in place date back to the Vietnam era." Since then, few reforms have been made to streamline or update the process. Rather, says Agnew-Barajas, "politicians have just added regulation on top of regulation," leaving a "very, very long pipeline" for refugees.