Dozens of Seattle-area residents gathered over the weekend to brainstorm ways to help people fleeing the war in Syria — including bringing more refugees into the state.
Six years into a civil war, Syria has the nation’s attention after photos of drowned refugee children on Turkey’s beaches went viral. While there has been criticism of the European response to the millions of people who have been displaced by the war, communities throughout the world are also looking at ways to respond to the crisis and offer aid.
In Seattle, Hussein Ali, a Syrian immigrant who overcame challenges to move his family from Damascus to the U.S., quickly organized the event to make action plans. Ali says he wants the community to pressure their Congressional representatives to increase the limit of 8,000 Syrian refugees allowed into the U.S.
The event included a panel to explore different avenues to help refugees. The panel included Ali Khreis, formerly of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly Refugee Advocacy and Support Program in Istanbul.
Khreis told the audience that the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) is severely understaffed and underfunded. He also said that the application for refugee status can take up to four years while refugees wait in camps with no education, no work, and no healthcare.
Once granted, resettlement in the new country can take up to six additional years, he said.
Nina Boe, a volunteer with Episcopal Migration Ministry and former intern with International Rescue Committee, also said results will not be immediate. Her organizations and others work with the Washington State Office of Refugee and Immigrant Affairs on the legal paperwork necessary for resettlement. Other local organizations that work with refugees are Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services and World Relief.
“These organizations are incredibly important and incredibly underfunded….we will not see Syrians resettled in Washington for another few months at least,” she said.
Alaa Yassin, another Syrian immigrant, talked about the lack of organizations to help refugees connect to resources and suggested focusing efforts on the ten to 15 Syrian refugee families already in Seattle.
Attendee Lola Peters, who worked with a nonprofit that assisted refugees from Latin America, said during the Vietnam War era host families in the United States used legal loopholes to help refugees.
Anny Khan, an immigrant from Pakistan, had some hope after the meeting.
“[T]he meeting was a good start….people were talking about their experiences and that changes the way they see things….I hope they think outside of the box,” Khan said.
The next gathering is planned for Sept. 13 at the University of Washington. The group has a new page on Facebook.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to add a link to the group’s new page on Facebook.