Yesterday, the United States settled its 10,000th Syrian refugee. The resettlement program had gotten off to a slow start, and came about under lots of criticism, but the Obama administration ended up hitting its goal a month ahead of schedule.
Since the Syrian war began in 2011, approximately five million Syrians have fled the country and fallen into an unstable limbo. The United States refugee program represents safety and security for more than 10,000 of those Syrians. For many Americans, though, the question now is how to best welcome them into our society.
In order to help answer this question, A Plus spoke with Suzanne Akhras Sahloul, founder and executive director of the Syrian Community Network (SCN). Based on our conversation (and a pinch of common sense), we've compiled a few tips for greeting your new neighbors if they happen to be Syrian refugees.
1. Organize community events.
"I always tell people to organize and to create some kind of committee," Sahloul said. "Social media is a very powerful tool."
She emphasized that picnics, dinners, block parties, tutoring and cultural training 101 are all great ideas. Even if someone understands American culture, learning everything from English to where the grocery store is can be really beneficial.
Put together an event so the new family can meet their neighbors and get to know other people nearby. The more resources and friends they have, the easier their new life in America will be, and their chances of success in finding work and peace will increase.
2. If you have the means, think about raising money for the family.
Many Syrian refugees are used to a middle-class life, according to Sahloul. They had houses, cars, jobs and education before their world was turned upside down by the war. Now that they have become refugees, they are coming from a life of instability, constant movement, and in many cases, poverty.
When Syrian refugees arrive here, they will be given $1,125 per person. That money is supposed to support their rent for three months, but Sahloul noted that in Chicago — where much of her work is based — the average cost of housing is $1,200 a month. That's why SCN has helped to pay 50 percent of new refugees' rent for their first six months in the country.
"In order to attend programs and learn English, you have to have basic needs met," Sahloul said. "We don't want to enable them by giving too much, but we want to give them a breather so they focus on getting that job, learning their English or getting their family registered in schools."
Sahloul remembered a story where one neighborhood raised $5,000 for a new refugee to buy a car. He used the money to get a Dodge Caravan, which helped him get to job interviews all over the city. Eventually, he landed some work. He ended up using the van to help other refugee families with rides when they needed it.
3. Treat them like any other neighbor.
Go over, introduce yourself, introduce your kids to their kids, ask if you can do anything to help them get settled and open your doors to their family. If they are from a place or culture you don't know much about, then it's even more worthwhile for you to do these things.
4. Talk about the elephant in the room.
By now, most refugees who are coming to the United States probably understand that their arrival is somewhat controversial. One family the SCN featured in a Facebook video said they expected to be disliked by Americans.
If a refugee has just arrived here, understand it probably took them almost two years to get here. Acknowledge and maybe even sympathize with the struggle that they've had to go through. Make sure they feel like you are happy to have them in your neighborhood, even if you privately have questions or concerns.
5. Invest some time in understanding who they are.
Don't just get to know them the way you would anyone else, but take an extra step. Read about the region they're from and try to understand the events that led them to you.
Many refugees came to the United States seeking safety for their families, not just a new life or a chance at work. In fact, many of the refugees that come to our borders are highly educated and qualified individuals; that's probably why they made it through the rigorous vetting system.
Sahloul remembers working with Fatima and Fadi Omarein, who said they were pleasantly surprised to see Americans smiling at them. Even just making that simple gesture can create a warm and welcoming experience. You can check our Fatima and Fadi's story in the short video below.
Want to help? You can donate or volunteer with the Syrian Community Network here.