Hussein Ali, a University of Washington (UW) alum born and raised in Syria, works as an engineer in Seattle. Ali first immigrated to the U.S. in 2009, and his family arrived in 2013.
“My family lost their house, got raided and were caught up in the crossfire,” Ali explained. “They literally took their clothes and valuables and went out.”
Earlier this fall, Ali met with students and community members at UW to discuss how Seattle can formally respond to the refugee crisis. Through that initial discussion, Ali met Nina Boe, another UW graduate. Boe, Ali and Ali’s wife, Zelda Mason, struck up a conversation about the topic, and the Washington Committee for Syrian Refugees was born.
In recent months, the number of Syrian refugees has drastically increased. Many are fleeing their homes due to the civil war ravaging the country. Approximately 9 million have fled since the war began in March 2011, making it the largest refugee crisis since World War II.
Only a few families have resettled here in Seattle over the past year, but numbers may increase in the future: President Obama has recently announced the United States will accept up to 10,000 refugees over the next year.
Washington Rescue Committee for Syrian Refugees is one of several volunteer groups that have cropped up to provide tangible solutions.
The organization is working to achieve three goals: to educate people about the Syrian refugee crisis, to advocate on behalf of the refugees and to connect community members to volunteer opportunities based on members’ interests and skills.
“We’ve had people responding across racial differences and across generational differences,” said Nina Boe. “It’s been so heartening and pleasant to see. This is something that’s speaking to a lot of people who want to be involved.”
In addition to being a resource for people with questions regarding Syrian refugees, the committee also hopes to link resettlement agencies in Seattle with volunteers. “We’re trying to talk to the resettlement agencies and ask what are the things people need when they first get here, that we can ... get to [the refugees],” Boe said.
Yet the initial response to the committee and outpouring of community interest has overshadowed the limited number of Syrian refugees coming to the states.
The process to come to the United States as a refugee is a long, arduous one. Between background checks and interviews, it can take approximately two years to achieve refugee status.
On Nov. 19, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would require additional certification for Syrian and Iraqi citizens. The House vote was 289 – 137.
This effort to create barriers for refugees came days after the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, which some believe stemmed from the refugee crisis currently unfolding in Europe — despite that many Syrian refugees are fleeing the same terrorists.
That worries Boe.
“If we’re seeing so much anti-Syrian refugee rhetoric, how many steps away are we from this being anti-refugee rhetoric, period?” Boe said. “Because that would be tragic.”
Locally, there has been positive reaction to the refugee crisis. Gov. Jay Inslee was one of the first elected officials in the nation to vocalize support for an open-door policy, despite overwhelming opposition from other governors. Additionally, support is growing across campuses. UW law students recently gathered in a classroom for “an open discussion on advocating for Syrian refugees” to combat the anti-refugee sentiments in mainstream media.
James Prescott, co-president of the Immigrant Families Advocacy Project at UW Law, said he’d heard anti-refugee rhetoric before, but was shocked by hate speech he’d encountered on social and in mainstream media. “As it turns out, most of my classmates at the law school seem to be having the exact same reaction [as me],” Prescott said, “and so when I suggested putting together a solidarity event it gathered a momentum of its own almost instantly.”
Members at the Nov. 24 panel, including Boe and other advocates, spoke to a crowded room on combating misconceptions about the application process and ways law student contributions can mobilize support for the issue.
“We’re working on educating more people to develop a better understanding of the situation,” Ali said after the panel. “Not only about Syrians, but about everyone who needs help.” n
For more information about the Washington Rescue Committee for Syrian Refugees, visit washingtonsyria.org