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Who belongs to NYC's refugee community, and what kind of support do they need?

By Alanna Schubach  | December 28, 2016 - 8:57AM

Refugees wait at a train station in Budapest, Hungary

In September, Donald Trump Jr., the eldest child of the then-Republican presidential nominee, posted a meme to Twitter in which he compared Syrian refugees to candy.

“If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem,” the meme reads.  

[This post first ran on October 27, 2016, and was updated on December 28, 2016.]

The tweet sparked an uproar, as this BBC article recaps, but it also captured some of the real fears held by many in the U.S. According to Slate, 53 percent of Americans say they don’t want Syrian refugees to be allowed into the country, citing terrorism concerns.

In response, one non-profit has launched a grassroots campaign to combat refugee-related anxiety. Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization that opposes anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim bigotry and oppression, approached business owners and asked if they would hang posters reading “Refugees Are Welcome Here” in their shop windows. Many of these posters can now be seen in bodegas in Crown Heights, Fort Greene, and Washington Heights.

Naomi Dann, a staff member with JVP, explains that the campaign is about fighting stereotypes. “There’s a lot of discourse equating refugees with terrorists,” she says. “It’s a harmful narrative propagated by the media and this election news cycle that we're trying to combat.”

She adds that most business owners JVP has spoken to have been amenable to hanging the poster. “We’ve had some really interesting conversations—people have been welcoming and responsive,” Dann says.

A tolerant environment seems like good news, given that the White House announced in August that 10,000 Syrian refugees have been successfully resettled throughout the country. But how many have landed in New York, and what is our local refugee community like?

Brick spoke to experts to find out who NYC’s refugees and asylees are, what they’re contending with as they transition to their new lives, and whether they pose any risks to New Yorkers.

NYC’s refugee and asylee community

First, it helps to understand the difference between refugees and asylees. Refugee status is granted while individuals are outside the U.S., while asylum is granted to those already living here, explains Visa Now, a company that assists immigrants through the visa application process. Both refugees and asylees have to demonstrate fear of persecution based on protected categories, including race, nationality, religion, and political opinion.

According to Kelly Agnew-Barajas, director of refugee resettlement with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, there are far more asylees than refugees in NYC: “We have a large number of asylees who gravitate to New York: artists, journalists, members of the LGBTQI community,” she says. “You get a much broader, diverse range of countries. We’re currently working with asylees from 68 different countries.” These are foreign-born people already living in the U.S. who apply for asylee status; for some, their work may have put them at risk of persecution in their home countries, and they are drawn to the freedom of expression that New York offers. One such example is Michael Ighodaro, a Nigerian-born activist granted asylum on the basis of his sexual orientation who is now living in NYC.

Nationwide, the Migration Policy Institute reports that about 70,000 refugees arrived in the U.S. last year, and the top three nations of origin for this cohort were Burma, Iraq, and Somalia. (Syria was seventh most common country of origin.) In New York City, meanwhile, the state Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance has data from 2014 indicating that only 157 refugees were settled within the five boroughs that year; statewide, the majority of this group hailed from Burma and Bhutan. Per the New York Post, only 11 of the Syrian refugees who have moved to the U.S. ended up in the city. The New York Times ran a map of where these immigrants settled, which reveals that most went to medium-sized cities like Boise, Idaho and Worcester, Massachusetts. 

The reason so few refugees land in NYC should come as no surprise to New Yorkers: the high cost of living here is the primary challenge in helping them to resettle here. Direct resettlement—that is, setting up newly arrived refugees with furnished apartments, food, and so on—is very rare here, Agnew-Barajas says, because the city is so astronomically expensive.

Far more common in New York City is family reunification, in which refugees have relatives already living here who act as their sponsor and take them in. “They have that launching pad to get started,” Agnew-Barajas explains.

What happens once they arrive?

Once a refugee does settle here, they will typically have a case manager from one of the several agencies that provide direct services to them. Along with the federal Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, the U.S. State Department has contracts with nine volunteer agenices nationally that are permitted to oversee refugee resettlement; in additional to Catholic Charities, the agencies operating in New York City are HIAS, CAMBA, and the International Rescue Committee. 

 “The case manager orients them, makes sure their documents are in order, makes sure any children are enrolled in school, and helps them apply for medical insurance,” Agnew-Barajas says. “They look at all the needs and then make a plan immediately to address those needs. A lot of people need English and cultural orientation, so we offer very comprehensive classes and one-on-one sessions.”

She adds that NYC’s refugees represent a broad range of experiences. Many Syrians, for instance, belonged to the Middle Eastern nation’s huge middle class and are quite educated, while other immigrants may have been born and grew up in a refugee camp in an impoverished area, with far fewer resources. Furthermore, Cubans and Haitians have special refugee status—you can see an explanation of what that means here—while Afghanis and Iraqis who have worked with U.S. forces overseas also receive special immigrant visas.

Case managers help their refugee clients apply and interview for jobs, depending on their skill set. “Usually what people need is help with benefits, finding a job, and figuring out where the next steps are for them,” Agnew-Barajas says.

Do refugees and asylees pose any threats?

Back to that poisoned Skittle meme: Is it true that within a group of refugees, there are a handful of ones that might pose a terrorist threat to the U.S.?

It’s highly unlikely, says David Bier, a policy analyst with the Cato Institute. Last month, the institute conducted a study in which it looked at every single person who arrived in the U.S. as an immigrant, tourist, or refugee, and then committed, or tried to commit, an act of terrorism.

“The conclusion was that there were 20 individuals who came to the US as refugees and either had plans or tried to commit an act of terrorism. Three of them were successful in killing someone, and three people total died as a result,” Bier says. “This all occurred in the 1970s, and all by Cuban refugees. It’s totally divorced from the current context of talking about refugees from the Middle East and the threat there.”

What the numbers added up to is that the chance of an American being killed in a terrorist attack committed by a refugee on U.S. soil is 1 in 3.64 billion per year—what Bier describes as a “miniscule threat.”

Agnew-Barajas notes that this may be due to the extreme caution with which the U.S. processes refugee applications. “Refugees are probably the most heavily vetted immigrants that come to the U.S. The process takes at least 2 years and involves FBI checks and background checks,” she says. Moreover, she adds that 80 percent of Syrian refugees are women and children, and most of the men are fathers traveling with their families. 

Bier agrees that the vetting process is thorough, but he notes that another reason for the lack of a threat posed by refugees is that they are self-selecting. “People who go the refugee program are more likely to adopt American values relative to people who are part of the Islamic State,” he says. “The refugee program is extremely difficult to get through—if you’re a terrorist and want to come to the U.S. and commit act of terrorism, going through the refugee program is a waste of your time. Other channels allow far more people in every year and are much faster in terms of getting your visa. There are really good reasons to believe terrorists don’t even bother using this program because of the time it takes.”

Furthermore, Bier adds that applying for refugee status entails a lottery process, meaning that applicants could end up being placed in Sweden, Germany, the U.K., or a handful of other countries—there’s no guarantee of ending up in the U.S.

What kind of support do refugees need?

While there are several agencies in NYC that help refugees and asylees adjust to life in New York, there are still many who suffer due to lack of infrastructure to support them. Bier explains that when the U.S. accepts refugees, it does not typically settle them in urban areas like NYC or Washington, D.C. because of the high cost of living. And while there isn't data on where refugees and asylees specifically settle when they do come to New York, it's likely many go to the neighborhoods of the city that are home to the most immigrants. According to the city's "The Newest New Yorkers" report, last filed in 2013, Queens is home to the highest proportion of NYC's immigrant population, and half of the borough's residents are foreign-born. 

“They try to put them in places where the costs initially are really low, so that is a challenge for the immigrants who are coming and trying to assimilate. They don’t necessarily have a support structure—there aren’t very many Syrians in rural New Hampshire,” he says. “The other aspect of it is that there aren’t as many jobs opportunities in those communities either, which makes the integration process long-term and more difficult in many ways by taking a short-term cost-conscious approach.”

One possible solution to this problem? Private sponsorship, Bier says: “Unlike the current government controlled, moderated program, it’s driven by people in communities who feel they have the capacity to help refugees.”

Canada already has such a system: the government of our neighbor to the north is working with individuals who have the means to provide “financial and emotional support”—including shelter, clothes, and food—to refugees for up to one year. The program has attracted international admiration, and now, the Huffington Post reports, there’s an initiative underway to implement the sponsorship program in other countries.

Bier says that the model could be effectively brought to the U.S., too, and that it has potential for unifying disparate groups of people. “It’s mainly individuals who are sponsoring them, but churches, synagogues, and community members also band together and submit these applications for sponsorship,” he says.  “It’s definitely something that has brought together a diverse group of individuals.” 


Alanna Schubach

Contributing writer

Contributing editor Alanna Schubach has over a decade of experience as a New York City-based freelance journalist.

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