Refugees are for the Americans something like baseball and apple pie
Interview with Ali Al Sudani who came as a refugee from Iraq to Texas with the resettlement program of the American government. Today, he leads within the organization Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston the governmental integration program for refugees, who are being resettled to Houston. Most of them come from the Middle East and Cuba. 2004 – 2009 he worked in Iraq for People in Need as translator and later as a manager of a capacity building project for local NGOs.
The USA run the largest refugee resettlement program in the world, resettling up to 85 thousand people from every year. The US authorities select them directly in refugee camps and before being relocated to the States, the refugees have to undergo vast security checks.
In Czech Republic, there is a huge debate about quota for the relocation of refugees within the EU. The Czech, Hungarian, Polish and Slovak government are strictly against it. Are there also quotas within the US, which make the refugees go to a certain state or region, or are they free to choose?
The quota for refugees coming to the United States every year is set by the president. There is a declaration saying how many refugees will be resettled from certain areas like Middle East, Africa or Asia. Refugees who know someone in the US, who can be their sponsor, will go to that city. I for example knew Meagan, who lives in Texas, because I worked with her before, so I decided to go to Texas. Refugees, who don´t know anyone, can´t choose between countries and if they leave the country which accepted them, they might be put back, or they stay in the new place, but don´t receive any more support by the state.
But if you are a person, who lives in a refugee camp and maybe even never left it, how can you know someone in the US, who would sponsor you?
Also churches and civil society groups can act as sponsors. Churches usually sponsor refugee families, who don´t know anyone in the States. When a church approaches us and wants to sponsor a refugee family, we tell them all about what it takes and then we wait until we get a notification, that a refugee family is coming.
Does being a sponsor mean, that this person takes responsibility for a part or even all the costs related to the refugees and their stay, or are sponsors rather helping them to get along with the new situation, spending time and showing them around?
Actually, it can go both ways. If you are an established initiative or civic organization, for example a church or a community, you can take care of a part of the costs, like paying two months of rent or coming up with furniture for the flat. But if you are individuals or a group of people, who want to volunteer, you can be a mentor for a refugee family. Then you will only be spending time with them, teaching them, showing them around.
When refugees arrive without language skills and don´t know how life works in the US, they might be more tied to people with the same cultural background. Doesn´t that lead to building of parallel societies or even ghettos?
There are several pillars of integration, which can prevent this. School is one of them, work is another one. Also civic engagement is an important aspect of integration. Besides that, we focus on placing the refugees in one spot, but we put them all around the city. On the other hand I think, that it´s good to be in contact with your community at the beginning, it can help a lot. We as agency are responsible for them getting enough contact to other people like their sponsors, to make sure they get the orientation they need and discover another aspects and cultures, so we don´t create ghetto. The most important thing is to give them the feeling of inclusion and being active citizens, that this is also their country and they need to educate themselves and get fully integrated.
You said that the community of migrants with the same origin can also play an important role helping the refugees at the beginning. Could you be more specific?
We engage the refugees, who came earlier, in our work, they volunteer with us. They can also act as a mentor and social guide to the newcomers, because they experienced the same thing and understand what the newcomers may need and what questions they deal with. In this way, we are utilizing all members of the community – the new ones, who are refugees and the old ones, who are born and raised in the United States - they can all help.
In Czech Republic, refugees are not allowed to work for many months. Many people believe, that they don´t want to work at all and only come to live on welfare. How do you integrate the refugees in the job market in the US?
That´s actually the backbone of what we do, it is very crucial for our work. The refugees who come to the United States are legal from the first day they arrive on the airport; they are allowed to work legally. Refugees start working usually within two to six months after their arrival. And 94 percent of our refugee families are self-sufficient within six months – and here I am not only talking about Houston, this applies to the whole United States. Refugees are not coming to live on welfare, they are coming to support their families, because they are proud individuals and they want to feel, that they are part of the community they are living in. If there are challenges in some of the European countries, whether it is Czech Republic or others, I think there must be some reform done on the legal framework, how we want to integrate these people. If we bring them in, we need to make sure, that they are allowed to work legally without the whole „you don´t want to work, you want to live on welfare“ thing. Let´s make sure we give them the resources, they get the legal standards and afterwards we find them jobs and send them to companies, who are profiting from hardworking people who only want to support themselves and their families.
What kinds of jobs do the refugees usually get after arrival and how successful is their integration into the job market?
When a person arrives, they first need to get American experience, which they can get this in any job market. Usually they work in industry, manufacturing, hospitality – like hotels for example. We also have some professional clients, we have engineers who are working not as engineers, but at least in an engineering company, where they can practice and gain some new experience. After that they go to school and get some certificates, so that they can start working in their actual profession.
Speaking about integration: Are there any places in the US, where you can say, that the integration of refugees and migrants has failed and what do you think went wrong there?
I think I can´t really tell you, because I personally don´t know any place in the US, where the integration was more difficult than in others. But I can tell you, what can make it much more problematic. When the local community is not supportive and they are not part in the process, when their minds and their hearts are not opened, then the integration process can become a problem for the new refugees. It all depends on both – on the newcomers, who need to have the will to be integrated and it depends on the local community to be open minded, guide them and teach them what´s important to be done in their local communities.
As you mentioned, if the local community and the society are not open minded towards refugees, it might block the integration. That´s why I would like to know: have you noticed a raise of fear, xenophobia and islamophobia in the US, since Donald Trump is running for president?
Well, there are people and candidates who are anti-immigrant and anti-refugees and speak against them in order to address their voters. But at the same time, there are people who stood up and put together statements, where they are emphasizing on the idea, that the United States is a country that is based on the freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly and freedom from torture. And all that goes against these principals – that is not America. At the end of the day, I have the confidence, that the American people will make the right choice when they elect a new president.
How is the atmosphere in the US right now? In Czech Republic, the society is very polarized and so it is in Germany - you see many people helping more than ever before, but on the other hand many refugee shelters being set in fire. Do you also feel a strong polarization and a raising willingness of some groups of people to take violent actions?
I think when we are expecting the elections, it is pretty normal in any democratic country, that there will be people on both sides: people who support us and people who are against. While we see that there is a raise of the islamophobia in the United States and in Europe, I also see that there are people, like the volunteers, who stick fair to their beliefs and values, whether they are motivated by their faith or their values, or sometimes who are just human beings and at the end – what is right will rule. And we as humans, we can´t turn our faces away from those who are escaping persecution from the Middle East and they seek a better life, because it´s not easy for anyone to become a refugee. No one wants to be teared apart from their country and they culture and go to the United States just because they want to see a new city. So we as developed countries, we should stand together and address this challenge, because what´s happening in the Middle East or elsewhere has direct consequences in Europe or the US. So besides the raise of the anti-Islam movement we see the opposite as well. Germany is a good example – it is playing a major role being the most welcoming country in Europe. Also in the US, more and more people get active and involved in the help for refugees. We have 4 times more volunteers, donations and support, than actually needed. Now we have so many people, faith groups and civil society institutions, who want to sponsor a refugee family that we had to set up a waiting list.
Even some people, who are not necessarily racist or xenophobic, might have fears because of the refugees coming to their neighborhood and not knowing how to deal with this situation. Are you trying to comfort their fears and how would you do that?
With local community consultations. We do consultations, where we invite all stakeholders from the fields of health, education, mayor´s office, etc., we talk to them, educate them, tell them about the refugees - that this is how they start, what they get, that they are here to work and seek a better life. So we keep a lot of communication in the process, because we don´t want them to be isolated from what´s going on in their community.
Have you noticed, that some people were not so sure and open minded and then it changed after the refugees arrived? Might a fear of the unknown play a role?
Here we have to see that refugees are not anything new in the United States. It is something deeply rooted in the culture of the country. Refugees are something like the apple pie and the baseball for the US. This is who we are, we are welcoming refugees since the program started, in order to prevent another holocaust from happening. And I think, we can´t afford another holocaust in the 21. Century. We need to learn from the history and our mistakes and can´t allow the same situation to happen by turning our faces away from refugees, who are simply fleeing persecution. We have the wealth and the resources for that - and where there's a will, there's a way.
What you said reminds me an event few weeks ago, where the rabbi of the Czech Jewish community reacted in his speech at the holocaust memorial on the previous speaker, who was strongly against welcoming refugees. The rabbi said: During the WW2, people died not only because of the Nazis, but also because of countries, who didn´t accept Jewish refugees...
Of course, and that´s exactly how it works in Houston - there is a Jewish congregation who just donated 12 thousand dollars for refugee services and they said: We want this to be used to resettle Syrian refugee families. This is how the community in Houston is responding to the challenges concerning refugees.
People who are against accepting refugees often use the argument, that there are mainly young men fleeing, who should rather stay home, fight the terrorists and free their country. Do you also hear this argumentation in the US and what do you think about that?
I think this argumentation is not rational. First of all – not everyone left their country, there are also people staying there and doing what they can to fight the terrorist ideology and terrorist groups. It is as irrational as saying that they we should not help them, because they have smartphones. The world is changing and in 2016 it´s not like it used to be in 1945 - smartphones became a necessity for their survival. We also don´t want to destroy the unit of a family by saying, that the young man should all stay and fight ISIS and we only accept the women and their children. We don´t want another genocide by forcing anyone to stay there, while the war against ISIS became international. Besides that, the real percentage of young man also often differs from the pictures we see on TV.
You also came to the US as a refugee from Iraq. How did you manage this challenge and did you have any negative experience with racism or xenophobia?
I can tell you, you need to have the right attitude; you need to work hard and be optimistic. United States is the land of opportunities. Plus my previous work for PIN enabled me to be prepared for the non-profit sector. So far, I have been there for seven years and I never have encountered any experience with racist or xenophobic behavior, neither in Houston, nor while travelling around the US.
The interview was originally published on the website Faktus.
Advocacy and Communication Strategy Coordinator on Migration, People in Need