Orange County refugee agencies preparing for Syrians

A family eats at Aleppo's Kitchen in Anaheim on Feb. 12. Owner Nidal Omar, who left Syria because of the war, opened the restaurant in 2013.
A family eats at Aleppo's Kitchen in Anaheim on Feb. 12. Owner Nidal Omar, who left Syria because of the war, opened the restaurant in 2013.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Orange County nonprofit groups are readying to receive Syrians fleeing the conflict in their country over the coming year. 

“Hopefully, next year in 2016, we’ll start seeing more refugees from Syria,” said Nahla Kayali, executive director of Access California Services, an Anaheim nonprofit that helps refugees and immigrants with the basics: access to medical care, food vouchers, English classes, citizenship counseling and job training.

Not many Syrians have settled in Southern California recently as refugees, but Kayali said that's expected to change.

Since 2011, the United States has only accepted about 1,500 Syrian refugees but in September President Barack Obama ordered the administration to increase that number to at least 10,000 for the next fiscal year, which began in October.

Kayali said up until now, many Syrians have been entering the U.S. on visitor and student visas and then applying for asylum — which is different than coming under refugee status. Access California offers them motel vouchers or help with paying rent.

“They are not receiving assistance from the government because they are not entering as refugees,” she said.

To prepare for the anticipated uptick in arrivals, refugee settlement agencies have been meeting to discuss what the new refugees may need in the community such as people who speak their language in the nearby school districts.

Donations of furniture and diapers are always needed, said Glen Peterson of World Relief Garden Grove.

Peterson said one of the greatest challenges for refugees settling in Orange County is the high cost of housing. Refugees are eligible for cash assistance for a few months and that helps pay rent until they find jobs.   

“We got some apartment managers that work with us,” he said.

Refugee service providers aren’t sure how many refugees Southern California could receive. Those wanting to come to the U.S. would apply through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees then pass a federal security and medical check. Then, refugees are divided up among the country’s settlement agencies to see where individuals and families would be most successful.

Refugees or immigrants often prefer to live in cities where they have family to help them. The next option is finding a community that resembles home.

Little Arabia — also called Little Gaza — in Anaheim offers that, Kayali said. Brookhurst Street between Katella Avenue and La Palma Avenue is home to cafes, fashion, and grocery stores.

“We ask them, 'Why did you come to Orange County?'” Kayali said. “They say, ‘We Google it. Where is the most Arab community.'” 

Kayali believes many Syrians will choose to live in Orange County because of the built-in community and family ties with Syrian Americans.

Along with Orange County, she said Detroit, Michigan and Chicago, known for its Arab communities, could also get a new generation of Syrians in the next year.