Syrian refugees coming to Orange County
The US is accepting 15,000 Syrian refugees in 2016 – many are coming to Los Angeles, Riverside and Anaheim. | Nicole Foy/THE CHIMES
They die trapped on smuggler ships on the Mediterranean Sea, flee gunfire from Iranian border control, climb fences erected to keep them out of Hungary and cram trains with their children in desperate attempts to make it to Germany, Sweden, Norway — anywhere that will accept them. Not all are Syrian nor Muslim, but most are from conflict zones in the Middle East or North Africa. Some survive the treacherous journey across Europe or to overflowing refugee camps in Jordan, Libya or Lebanon, but sometimes they die on a Turkish beach — bodies of men, women and children, cold and alone.
“People have lived to see the things that they hoped they would never see happen again, happen again,” said Judith Mendelhsohn Rood, professor of history and Middle Eastern studies.
La Mirada may seem far away from the chaotic arrival of refugees flooding the streets of Europe or the crowded refugee camps in Turkey or Kurdistan, but the war-torn and desperate will soon be at our doorstep as well.
In response to what the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has called the worst humanitarian crisis of our time and the greatest migration of people since World War II, the White House has promised to resettle up to 15,000 refugees from the Syrian civil war. Last year, only 70,000 refugees total were granted asylum. The United States will increase the cap on refugees to 85,000 this year and 100,000 in 2016.
Southern California is a leading destination for U.S.-bound refugees. Little Arabia in Anaheim has one of the largest Middle Eastern communities in the United States, while the greater Los Angeles area and Riverside are two of the top ten conclaves of Syrian-born immigrants.
“We will probably be seeing 2,000 [refugees] coming into the area in the next year, into Southern California more or less,” said Ryan Clark, volunteer coordinator of Voice of the Refugees.
Organizations like VOR are involved in the resettlement of the refugees from the Middle East and North Africa in Orange County. Often, VOR volunteers are among the first to greet refugees when they transport them from the airport to government-provided housing — but the help does not stop there. By mobilizing local resources and donations, VOR is able to provide furniture, food and transportation while assisting them with driving lessons, English and citizenship classes, childcare, tutoring and searching for jobs.
Despite resources like VOR and other aid agencies like Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a Jewish organization, refugees find resettlement to be another stressful step in their long journey. Draper Encheff, senior intercultural studies major, interned with VOR this summer and moved with his wife into the Little Arabia community. Encheff said the little things, like filling out constant paperwork for food stamps and other services, are sometimes the most difficult.
“They say this is so overwhelming. ‘I have to get a job, get a car, learn English, fill out all these papers.’ Then, the job they get may not be that good,” Encheff said. “It may be really tough for them, unless they speak English.”
Others are likely facing a radically shifted worldview as some in the Middle East, even Christians, believe any Arab immigrant will be treated unfairly in America, according to Victor Khalil, adjunct professor of modern languages. When Khalil fled Egypt and eventually immigrated to the United States, he was astonished that most Americans did not treat him as expected.
“The main culture shock was the way I was received, and welcomed. Because this was not what I had learned at all. I was told, ‘When you go to the West, you will be oppressed, you will have no friends, you will be abused,’ and that is all we learned about the West,” Khalil said.
Now, he sees himself as a bridge.
“The Lord got this hate and bitterness out of my heart. This is our legacy now, to tell the lost souls that there is hope, I was like you, but somebody took me in, opened his or her arms and adopted me and loved me,” Khalil said.
Biola ministry creates understanding between Christians and Muslims
Biola’s Muslim Ministry, recently renamed as Christian-Muslim Understanding, seeks to create connections between the Biola community and the surrounding Muslim communities in hopes of clearing social and religious misconceptions on both sides.
“A lot of Biola [students] have very negative misconceptions about Muslims. They have never met a Muslim. We know it’s not uncommon to think of them as scary people, or people that we can’t trust,” said Hudson Tam, junior biblical studies major and director of Christian-Muslim Understanding.
Christian-Muslim Understanding initiates relationships between the two communities by volunteering with VOR, visiting local mosques to observe services and speak with imams — prayer leaders of mosques — and invite speakers to campus, Tam said.
Christians have a responsibility to respond
As the descendant of Jewish Holocaust survivors who immigrated to the United States, Mendelsohn Rood has long felt a kinship and desire to help refugees that she hopes the Biola community shares.
“We all have a sense of responsibility. Yes, God is in charge and doing everything and he doesn’t need you, true. But isn’t it a blessing to share your blessing? What are you willing to do,” Mendelsohn Rood said.
Encheff and Clark agreed the Biola community is uniquely poised to impact the current and incoming refugees if they see them as neighbors, not strangers.
“That is the way that we can love them, that is the way we can receive them and welcome them: by not overlooking them, but by looking right at them and sympathizing, knowing that we would be acting the same way in these difficult circumstances,” Clark said.
The same people asking the world for help in the news will receive that help only 10 minutes from campus. Biola students may go to the nations, but right now, the nations are coming to Biola.
“Keep your ears open and listen to the news. See if the refugees are going to be in your area, take some action, do something about it,” Khalil said. “This is an opportunity. They are here.”