Taylor Batten

Charlotte a safe haven for more Syrian refugees

A recent Charlotte arrival: Mohammed Khairat, his wife Asmaa Balloot and their children.
A recent Charlotte arrival: Mohammed Khairat, his wife Asmaa Balloot and their children. Courtesy of Mayada Idlibi

When I met Abdul Razak Hariri and his family shortly after their arrival last fall, they were the only Syrian refugees living in Charlotte. Now, just over six months later, nine Syrian refugee families live in Charlotte and more are on the way.

The Hariri family landed in Charlotte just before Gov. Pat McCrory called for a halt to Syrian refugees coming to North Carolina in November. McCrory was following other governors and members of Congress who wanted a moratorium after the Paris terrorist attacks.

Instead, as the headlines from last fall have receded, the opposite has happened. The U.S. State Department launched a “surge operation” in Jordan designed to meet President Obama’s commitment to bring 10,000 Syrian refugees to the United States by the end of September.

As part of that, the eight additional families have moved to Charlotte, mostly after fleeing the war-torn Syrian cities of Daraa and Homs. Five or six more will arrive in coming weeks through the Carolina Refugee Resettlement Agency and perhaps more through Catholic Charities.

The numbers are expected to climb throughout the coming year. The State Department intends to settle 100,000 refugees (from all countries) in 2017, up from 70,000 most years and 85,000 this year.

More than 700 people from around the world move to Charlotte as refugees each year. Charlotte has welcomed refugees this year not only from Syria, but from Somalia, Eritrea, the Congo, Bhutan, Myanmar and a half-dozen other countries.

While some politicians pander by demonizing these refugees, many residents find resettlement genuinely unsettling. They read about the Paris suspect who had a fake Syrian passport, or about recent arrests in Germany of three suspected Syrian terrorist plotters who had entered Europe posing as asylum seekers.

There is no question that refugees, especially from Syria, need to be vetted meticulously. But as we insist on that, we must also recognize that most of the 4.7 million Syrians who have applied with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees are children, women and the elderly.

All are fleeing unimaginable hell. Hariri told me about the government kidnapping his brother. The body was abused so badly Hariri couldn’t identify it. He told me of children who disappeared, bombings, his house being burned down. The eight families who recently arrived in Charlotte endured similar trauma.

“These are just individual families. Almost all of them have small children, and they are put into severe change in their life due to the war that transpired in their home country,” said Marsha Hirsch, executive director of Carolina Refugee Resettlement Agency. “The policy of the U.S. government since after World War II is to offer some level of protection for people who have registered with the United Nations and are seeking protection.”

The U.S. vetting process differs from what migrants go through to get to Europe. Ours takes a year or more and involves multiple interviews, background checks, fingerprinting, retina scans and other steps.

Charlotte should be proud to offer these people shelter.

“They are just trying to seek safety,” Hirsch said, “and survive.”