US will accept more Syrian refugees next year, but some Syrian Americans say it's not enough

Refugees from Syria arrive in Presevo, near the border with Macedonia, in the south of Serbia. The U.N. says more than 4 million have fled the civil war in Syria, making it the worst refugee crisis in a quarter century.
Refugees from Syria arrive in Presevo, near the border with Macedonia, in the south of Serbia. The U.N. says more than 4 million have fled the civil war in Syria, making it the worst refugee crisis in a quarter century.
Djordje Savic/EPA/Landov

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More refugees from Syria are expected to make it to the United States in the coming year, as the number of people fleeing that country's civil war has reached critical mass.

U.S. officials recently said that between 5,000 and 8,000 Syrian refugees would be admitted. So far, the U.S. has admitted very few Syrians fleeing the war, which began in 2011. In fiscal year 2014, only 132 Syrian refugees were taken in.

Relative to that, the new number is a big jump. But it's still a tiny fraction of the more than 4 million people who are estimate to have fled Syria for neighboring countries. An additional 7.6 million are believed to be displaced within the country.

Local Syrian Americans said they welcome the U.S. taking in any number of refugees, but they aren't getting their hopes up.

“We admire that, and we applaud it...But I will say, it’s too little too late," said Hassan Twiet, a local Syrian American activist.

Twiet said he recently returned from a visit to Turkey, where his mother has taken refuge along with many other displaced Syrians. Both are frustrated.

"You are not allowed to work in the hosting country," Hassan said. "You have nothing left except begging for food, or working under really miserable conditions and being a slave.”
Or trying to make it to Europe by sea, a trip that’s cost many Syrian refugees their lives. Recent photos of a drowned toddler, whose family tried to make it to Greece from Turkey, have cast international attention on the crisis.

An Obama administration official said the United Nations refugee agency has referred 15,000 Syrian refugees to the United States.

Those who eventually make it here would first have to be accepted for resettlement. Then they would work with a refugee aid group to fly to the U.S.

Typically, the non-governmental International Organization for Migration arranges the flight for most refugees bound for the U.S.; refugees must sign a promissory note agreeing to reimburse the the federal government for the cost of the trip. Once here, refugee groups work to resettle them.

Martin Zogg directs the Los Angeles office of the International Rescue Committee, a refugee resettlement group. His organization supports a recommendation made by a group of Democratic senators, who have asked that the U.S. accept 65,000 Syrian refugees.

He said it's unlikely so many would be admitted, but that he prefers anything to the status quo.

“We are encouraged that this issue is getting the attention it deserves, and we are very hopeful that we’ll begin to see an influx of Syrian refugees," Zogg said.

He described the situation as dire: "They are stateless, they are homeless. We are looking at women and children and the elderly, people who are in the most desperate circumstances. The need is profound. They are fleeing persecution...persecution and war."

The armed conflict between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and several opposition factions began after a series of anti-government protests during the "Arab Spring" period in early 2011. It's estimated that hundreds of thousands have died as a result of the fighting since. 

The United States has so far contributed about $4 billion in humanitarian aid to assist with the resettlement of Syrian refugees. But some Syrian Americans say that's not the solution they'd prefer. Many, including Twiet, have called for the U.S. to intervene politically and remove Assad.

"The root cause of the problem is the lack of action from the Obama administration," Twiet said.

Vicki Tamoush, a third-generation Syrian American from Tustin, said she would have preferred a solution other than resettlement.

"What I want is for Syrians to live as freely as I live here, and to enjoy practicing whatever faith they want and living whatever way they want, the way I can here," said Tamoush, whose grandparents came from as immigrants from Syria during an earlier migration wave. "I want for Syria what I want for myself, and that requires a political solution, not a humanitarian one."