This story was updated on April 24, 2016.
By Andrew Vitelli – Between 1,200 and 1,500 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the U.S. in the six months since President Obama promised to open the country’s doors to 10,000 such refugees last fall. In New Haven, Conn., 70 Syrians have already been welcomed, and the pace of refugee resettlement is expected to increase over the summer. Westchester, however, is unlikely to see many, if any, refugees move into the county.
At a White Plains forum this month addressing the Syrian crisis, speakers from refugee aid agencies and from local community groups sought ways to help, with many in attendance calling for Westchester to accept refugees. One group circulated a letter calling on County Executive Rob Astorino to support the resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Yonkers, where most of Westchester’s Arab-Americans live. Community support, though, is only one small factor in the federal government’s decisions of where to resettle refugees.
“It’s not just a community that says ‘Please send us refugees. We want to resettle them here,’” explained Riva Silverman, Vice President of External Affairs at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), at the forum. “That might be one factor, but it’s not a sufficient factor to get refugees into communities.”
HIAS is one of nine agencies, with hundreds of affiliate sites throughout the country, which work with the federal government to resettle the refugees. Refugees are settled within the vicinity of the affiliates. While there are sites in Jersey City, N.J. and in Albany, there are none in the immediate vicinity of Westchester. While an agency can theoretically be established and approved by the federal government, housing prices make Westchester a difficult county for refugee resettlement.
“Currently, the biggest concern that any resettlement agency has is the availability and cost of housing and finding housing that the refugees can afford to pay for after their very modest stipend runs out,” Bill Swersey, Director of Communications for HIAS, explained. “That’s a challenge in the whole New York Metropolitan area.”
Chris George, Executive Director of Connecticut-based Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS), said the U.S. Department of State required refugees to be resettled within 50 miles of one of the nine agencies’ affiliates. George said he is seeking an exemption from this requirement from the New York State Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance, but has been told that there are already enough refugees coming into the state.
Astorino, a Republican, said in November that he opposes the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the U.S., citing the risk of terrorists from the Islamist militant group ISIS slipping through the vetting process. Calls to Astorino’s office last week were not returned. Astorino’s position earned him the scorn of many at the White Plains forum, but government opposition is only one of several factors considered. According to a State Department spokesperson, factors considered include “availability of employment, cost of living, and access to language services,” but that opposition of state or local officials would also be taken into account.
“Local government officials are consulted on a continuing basis and thus are an important voice in considering where refugees are placed,” said the State Department spokesperson.
The fact that Syrians are not being placed in Westchester through the resettlement program does not mean there have not been Syrians coming into the county since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. Fatima, a Peekskill resident who attended the April 5 forum, received a visa to come to the U.S. from Syria shortly before the war broke out and has been in the country since.
“I was maybe one of the luckiest people ever,” said Fatima, who still has family in Syria and did not want her last name used in publication.
Refugees are also not obligated to remain in the area that they are resettled. A refugee resettled, for example, in Jersey City or in Boise, Idaho, has absolute freedom of movement within the U.S. So while refugees likely won’t be resettled in Westchester, a handful may end up in the county.
Sana Mustafa, a Syrian activist and one of the panelists at the forum, came to the U.S. through a State Department program and was granted asylum after her father was imprisoned in Syria. While Mustafa now lives in New York City, she said that she hoped Westchester residents would open their arms to refugees coming into the country.
“We’re fleeing the terror that people are fearing, so we’re not the terrorists, we’re the victims,” Mustafa told The White Plains Examiner. “You have a chance to give a life to someone else, so why wouldn’t you?”