As part of the massive exodus from the Middle East, Texas could soon become home to hundreds of Syrian refugees fleeing their war-stricken country more than 7,100 miles away.
Already, the state is seeing an increase in the number of resettled Syrians. Since October, 123 have been placed in Texas — up from 10 the federal fiscal year before, and 8 the year before that. Though that number remains relatively small, Texas — a hotbed for refugee resettlement — is likely to see a significant increase in the next year as the U.S. prepares to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees.
Though the exact number remains unclear, in recent years about 10 percent of the 70,000 refugees admitted into the country annually have wound up in Texas. And so far, more Syrians have been resettled in Texas than any other state.
Local organizations assisting in refugee resettlement have mostly worked with refugees from Iraq and Burma in recent years, but leaders of these Texas refugee support groups say they are bracing — and hoping — for an influx of Syrian refugees.
“I wish they weren’t experiencing what they’re experiencing, but I’ve spent my entire career working with refugees. Knowing what they’re experiencing, their desire just to be safe, I hope they come,” said Jeff Watkins, vice president for global initiatives for the YMCA of Greater Houston.
This year, the international services division of his organization will support 20 Syrian refugees resettling in the Houston area by helping them find jobs, enroll in government-assistance programs like Medicaid and become fluent English speakers.
So far, Syrian refugees have resettled in the state’s metropolitan areas, mostly in Harris County, home to Houston, and the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, according to a state breakdown of refugee placements.
Refugee admissions are determined by the U.S. Department of State, which processes applications received through the United Nations and conducts security screenings — a process that can take up to two years.
Refugees cleared by the State Department are assigned to one of nine national refugee resettlement organizations that place individuals in communities across the country where local case managers help them resettle.
Ali Al Sudani, director of refugee services for the Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, said he expects the increase in Syrian refugees resettling in Texas to be gradual. Al Sudani’s organization has already helped 20 Syrian refugees resettle in Houston where the Arabic-speaking community is growing.
“We are absolutely ready” for more, he said. But as a refugee himself, Al Sudani said the lengthy approval process will impede an immediate influx of thousands of refugees such as Europe has experienced in recent months. “I know the process,” he added.
Danna Van Brandt, spokeswoman for the State Department, said it is working to “facilitate increased admissions” of Syrians in light of the refugee crisis while still “safeguarding the American public.” Despite the extensive vetting process for refugees, State Department officials have said the agency is on target to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next year because many applicants have already started the admissions process.
For Refugee Services of Texas — which has several affiliates in the state and has assisted 72 of the 123 Syrian refugees placed in Texas since October — preparing for an increase means tapping into the local Syrian community for help.
In Dallas, Nabil Kalo, a member of the Syrian American Association who immigrated to the United States a year and half ago, assists in making sure recent arrivals are aware that “all refugees are welcome” in Texas.
“We in the Syrian community here and with the agencies, Refugee Services of Texas and Catholic Charities, are supporting them to make a new life,” Kalo said, adding that the Syrian community works to include refugees in social gatherings like small, local festivals and outings to local museums.
The ties within the Dallas Syrian community are prominent enough that two refugee families originally resettled in Fort Worth eventually moved to Dallas at the urging of their compatriots, according to a placement breakdown from Refugee Services of Texas.
After months of increased attention on the trek displaced Syrians are making to reach Europe, and heightened pressure on the United States, President Obama’s decision to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees was just what refugee advocates were waiting for.
But with Syria headed into its fifth year of an armed conflict that has displaced millions of its residents, some are still hoping those numbers will continue to increase.
“The world needs to step up and have a humane and compassionate response to this situation,” said CEO of Refugee Services of Texas Aaron Rippenkroeger, adding that he hopes the United States and particularly Texas will play a bigger role in helping the millions of Syrian refugees traumatized by the violence in their country. “It’s not new. It’s been going on for four, five years already. But it seems people are now starting to come to terms with the situation.”
Jordan Rudner contributed to this report.