Through news reports and social media, Americans have watched the desperate flight of Syrian refugees from a deadly civil war to the Middle East and Europe.
Now, it is time for the U.S. to act, said church leaders who gathered Sept. 28 near the U.S. Capitol to press Congress and the Obama Administration to resettle 100,000 Syrian refugees by the end of next year.
As United Methodist Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño, co-chair of the denomination’s Immigration Task Force, pointed out that images of fleeing refugees have included those who did not survive the journey.
It’s not so easy to be complacent, she said, “when we’ve seen the dead children, dead in the arms of their mothers on oppressively cramped boats, under crude tents and even alone ─ alone ─ on the shores of the lands their parents were hoping would save their lives.”
“We cannot just stand and watch this happen,” Carcaño declared at the press conference. “We ask that President Obama and members of Congress act with compassion…”
The U.S. government’s response to the Syrian crisis has been slow, with only 1,500 Syrian refugees resettled so far ─ a statistic that Carcaño and others consider to be “inexcusable.” The U.S. has planned to increase that number to 10,000 next year.
Qusai Zakarya, a Syrian from a small town near Damascus who is now living in the U.S., explained why that compassion is crucial. He briefly recounted the struggle in Syria, since 2011, against the Assad regime. He was lucky to survive being exposed to saran gas.
“The people of Syria didn’t rebel to leave Syria,” he said, calling for support to help people eventually return to Syria as well. “We were calling on the free world to help us and stand with us while we were fighting dictatorship.”
Resettling after Vietnam War
The U.S. has responded to other mass refugee crises before, most recently after the Vietnam War. After the fall of Saigon, Carcaño noted, President Gerald R. Ford established an interagency task force “that in just one year resettled more than 130,000 Vietnamese refugees.” President Jimmy Carter also made refugee resettlement a priority, airlifting 200,000 to safety in 1980 alone.
“Neither of these decisions was popular in the moment, but they were the right thing to do and they showed great moral leadership,” the bishop said.
Between 1975 and 2002, the U.S. welcomed more than 759,000 Vietnamese refugees, she said. “They’re now our friends. They’re now our neighbors. They’re now part of our communities of faith.”
Because the majority of Vietnamese refugees were resettled in southern California, the California-Pacific Conference led by the bishop has the largest Vietnamese-American United Methodist membership.
Those who have joined and helped build new congregations “are some of our strongest Christians, some of our strongest United Methodists,” Carcaño told United Methodist News Service.
Churches ready for refugees
The support of the faith community underlines the moral obligation of Congress and the Obama administration toward Syrian refugees, said U.S. Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.).
For decades, U.S. faith groups also have led resettlement efforts and religious groups are “ready, willing and able” to deal with Syrian and other refugees, said Linda Hartke, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. These organizations have received thousands of phone calls offering food, shelter and other types of aid to Syrians, she added.
Fearmongering over the status of Syrians who arrive in the U.S. is baseless, Hartke said, noting that “refugees are the single most scrutinized and screened of all individuals who enter the United States.”
Carcaño urged church members across the country to set the moral tone for resettlement. “We have a capacity to integrate them (Syrian refugees) easily into this country,” she said. “But creating the right spirit…is so critical.”
The United Methodist Board of Church and Society is asking United Methodist clergy to sign a letter by Sept. 30 to Congress to welcome all Syrian refugees.