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story.lead_photo.caption Faez Shamas Arso, who now lives in Fayetteville, fled Iraq with his wife and daughter to escape persecution by the Islamic State group, leaving behind his job as an electrical engineer for the state rail company. - Photo by Andy Shupe

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas took in roughly 1 out of every 1 million refugees seeking shelter worldwide last year -- 13 of the 14.5 million accounted for by the United Nations.

The 13 figure from last year comes from tallies kept by the U.S. Department of State.

The United States, as a whole, has come under criticism around the globe for not being more welcoming to the hordes fleeing their homelands. The number of countries refusing to take in large numbers of refugees has placed an unfair burden on the few countries that have accepted them, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

"This has to spread more, has to be shared more," Commissioner Filippo Grandi told the BBC last week. "Otherwise the imbalances will cause knee-jerk reactions, closures, rejections, and, in the end, we will fail in our responsibility to help refugees."

Grandi said the number of refugees worldwide has now probably grown to 20 million.

A Northwest Arkansas group called Canopy NWA wants to raise the number Arkansas accepts. Canopy NWA's goals are not on a large scale.

"We're talking about one or two families a month," Frank Head of Catholic Charities said at the group's May 4 meeting in Fayetteville.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is one of nine charitable organizations authorized through agreements with the State Department to accept refugees into the country.

In Northwest Arkansas, the group operates through Catholic Charities Immigration Services. Catholic Charities sent a representative to the May 4 meeting in Fayetteville. So did the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, another of the nine authorized groups.

Nina Zelic, director for refugee services for the Lutheran organization, told the dozen attendees that her group is considering Northwest Arkansas as a potential site for opening another chapter.

Clint Schnekloth, lead pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran in Fayetteville and an organizer for Canopy NWA, said: "We don't have more than 30 refugees a year come to Arkansas because we're what's called a 'family reconnection' state only."

"A refugee can only come here if he already has a family member living here. What we're trying to do is make Northwest Arkansas a site where a family can move to even if they don't already have someone living here," he said.

WORLDWIDE PROBLEM

Patrick Gallaher, a spokesman for the Catholic Charities state headquarters in Little Rock, said that before the Syrian civil war started in 2013, as many as 11.5 million refugees needed homes in other countries.

The Syrian war created another 4.8 million, according to the U.N. Waves of immigrants have flooded the countries of American allies in Europe, leading to an international call for the U.S. to do more to help.

In September, President Barack Obama committed the U.S. to taking in 10,000 by Oct. 1 of this year. But that promise stirred misgivings throughout the nation and in Arkansas.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, citing safety concerns, was one of 20 governors who announced that he would oppose using any installation in his state to house Syrian refugees. He expressed doubts that a large influx could be rapidly and effectively screened to rule out security threats.

Arkansas has a history of housing refugees. Twice, the federal government -- with little consultation with state and local authorities -- picked Fort Chaffee in Fort Smith as a relocation center for refugees. The first time was after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, and the second time was to house Cubans in 1980.

"I think that being a small state with a small population means that we're taken advantage of," Gallaher said.

In a May 12 telephone interview, Hutchinson said he does not object to what Canopy NWA wants to do privately.

"What you told me today is more information than the federal government's ever given me on refugee resettlement," Hutchinson said after hearing a brief account of the Canopy NWA meeting.

"All we get from the State Department is after-the-fact information of who was resettled in Arkansas without many details," he said.

LIFE AS A REFUGEE

The U.N. commissioner can refer a refugee to the State Department and request that the person be accepted for resettlement. The U.N. conducts extensive screenings, including background checks, before that referral is made.

If the State Department considers that case, the refugee goes through another round of security checks. In all, there are 18 steps a refugee must go through before he can enter the U.S., Zelic said. The steps take 1½ years if all goes perfectly, she said.

A "refugee" as defined by international law is someone who has fled his country of origin because he is persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or because of his politics. About one in 100 refugees ever resettles, according to the U.N.

Faez Shamas Arso, now living in Fayetteville, is one of them.

Arso left Mosul in northern Iraq shortly before ISIS extremists captured the city in June 2014. His cousin Polis Iskander, a pastor at the Eastern Orthodox Church in Mosul, was executed by ISIS fighters, Arso said. Iskander was one of the estimated 2,000 people executed in the city of about 2.5 million, he said.

ISIS fighters have demanded that people in areas they capture convert to Islam.

"Not anyone who was Christian wanted to become a Muslim," Arso said of his family. "Our religion is very strong with Jesus. We cannot leave Jesus."

Until he fled, Arso was chief electrical engineer at the Mosul railway station for the Iraqi State Railways, a 1,200-mile network that stretched the length of Iraq.

After a day at work, he would sit at a computer and fill out the forms to become a refugee in the United States, he said.

One of his sons had worked as a civilian translator for the U.S. Army, and the Army helped that son resettle in Fayetteville. Having a son already in the U.S. was a big help in Arso's immigration effort. Still, the process took him three years.

Northwest Arkansas is very welcoming, Arso said. "Everyone is good here." But it is a tough job market for a 65-year-old man who has spent much of the past year learning the language, and being unemployed is the worst part of his new life, Arso said.

It's a common problem for refugees, Zelic said. "We need jobs, and we need houses" for them, she said.

THE SYRIAN CRISIS

The U.S. takes in about 85,000 refugees a year. Although Obama committed to accepting another 10,000 from Syria, only one-fifth of those had arrived by mid-April. The State Department and refugee advocate groups blame insufficient staffing to conduct the extensive security checks as one reason for the lag.

Recently, the Syrian crisis is getting the most refugee attention because it has sparked a political crisis in Europe, Gallaher said. Germany, for instance, has a population of about 80 million. The 1 million refugees there have a big impact.

Countries like Turkey and Greece have even more refugee populations relative to their domestic populations, and fewer resources than wealthy Germany to deal with them, according to news accounts.

So, when the United States agrees to take 10,000 and then is slow to make good on that pledge, it creates resentment overseas, Gallaher said.

"We need an example of us acting in solidarity with them," he said of European allies.

U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., a frequent critic of Obama regarding national security, said there are refugees in Syria whom he would welcome as neighbors. He said he is pushing to accept another 10,000 on top of the 10,000 the president promised.

He is sponsoring the "Religious Persecution Relief Act" to accelerate the approval process for the 10,000 additional refugees a year.

Critics of the bill include Obama, who says it favors Christian refugees over those of other faiths.

Cotton said his bill would address unintended but real discrimination against Christians and members of other religious minorities in the region. That discrimination is obvious from refugee figures provided by the State Department, he said.

State Department Refugee Processing Center data show that one Christian of any doctrine was among the 220 Syrian refugees admitted into the U.S. in the two weeks ending April 25, according to a check of the data.

But, Mohja Kahf, a literature professor at the University of Arkansas, an author and a native of Syria, is not a fan of Cotton's bill. The effect of it, he said, would be to make more distinctions between Syrians, furthering the goal of President Bashar Assad.

Assad has done everything he can to set once-peacefully co-existing groups against each other, Kahf said.

Canopy NWA members have been busy meeting local leaders, Schnekloth said of efforts to increase the number of refugees in Northwest Arkansas.

"We have a long list of stakeholders we're talking to," he said. "We're going to talk to elected leaders and others in industry and in the community, in housing and health care."

"If our application is accepted by the State Department, it will be after the first of November before we can accept our first refugee family. We're talking about one or two families a month, so perhaps three or four before Christmas," Schnekloth said

He estimated that, under the effort, 100 people a year could be relocated in Northwest Arkansas, which would require a lot of private financial support.

"We want to do more than just give them a place to land and be safe, although that's the first priority," he said.

Metro on 05/23/2016

Print Headline: NW Arkansas group seeks to welcome more refugees

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  • skeptic1
    May 23, 2016 at 8:44 a.m.

    If the UN was a relevant and meaningful body it would send in troops to defend against these murderous thugs instead of exporting refugees that cannot be vetted. I agree with our governor, security has to be our first priority.

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