Independent Student Newspaper for the University of Texas at San Antonio

The Paisano

Independent Student Newspaper for the University of Texas at San Antonio

The Paisano

Independent Student Newspaper for the University of Texas at San Antonio

The Paisano

Refugees emigrate from Syria to San Antonio

After pictures of 2-year-old boy Aylan Kurdi’s body washed up on a Turkish shore went viral, the Syrian Refugee Crisis finally reached a tipping point and gained international attention.

Escalating violence in Iraq and Afghanistan accounts for a large percentage, but the largest number of people are fleeing war-torn Syria.

In Syria, long reigning dictator Bashar Al Assad has insulated himself from the threat of an Arab Spring style democratic revolution by various tactics – including militarily supporting pro-regime forces, granting amnesty to jailed terrorists – who, upon release, staged a counterrevolution against the country’s democratic aspirants, buying Assad time. Further, the regime violated the Geneva Conventions by barrel bombing its own citizens, and allegedly using Sarin gas, a deadly chemical nerve agent, against non-combatant populations.

These acts of state-sponsored violence, civil war type conditions and climate stresses, such as Syria’s prolonged drought, have become factors in migration, forcing mass displacement. Widespread instability leaves thousands of Syrian refugees with no choice but to seek permanent resettlement.

“Refugee” is a legal designation – an important one. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Refugees are “persons who have fled extreme violence, war and human rights violations in their countries of origins and seek asylum in a neighboring country.” In most cases, they cannot return home because of safety concerns, according to the UNHCR.

Of the four million Syrians who have fled the civil war, 95 percent of them traveled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. These countries currently recognize incoming arrivals as migrants, not refugees. This distinction means they are not able to work legally.

Desperate refugees who choose to trek on highways between neighboring European countries are met with the same no-employment problem.

Others pay smugglers to reach Europe and risk dangerous boat trips, often crowded vessels and barely buoyant dinghies that have killed thousands when large waves capsize them.

For those that survive these risks, the journey is regularly punctuated by governments whose policies it is to send them away. This 95 percent needs a systematic way to relocate to another country for the long term.

Germany has raised their refugee quota by the thousands in the past few months.

The news that Germany would raise their quota of 800,000 starkly contrasts to the US’s comparatively meager quota of at least 85,000 refugees in fiscal 2016 and 100,000 in 2017 (including a minimum of 10,000 Syrians).

According to the UNHCR’s 2013 statistical report, prior to this crisis, the U.S. accepted more refugees than all other nations combined, and many of them emigrated to Texas.

At 12,000 a year, the Lone Star State receives more refugees than any other state – over 12,000 each year. Last year, 969 of these refugees were resettled in San Antonio.

These numbers are expected to increase dramatically in the face of the Syrian refugee crisis.

Currently, there are very few Syrian refugees in the US but that is expected to change in the months to come as San Antonio is prepared to accept an additional 700 Syrian refugees in the coming year.

For refugees, the process of migrating to another country and beginning their lives as legal residents.

The process starts when the United Nations (UN) screens applicants to determine which individuals are qualified candidates for resettlement in another country.

If the UN commissioners for refugee services refers the individual to the U.S. for resettlement, the next step is an interview by U.S. immigration.

Having relatives who are already U.S. citizens increases their likelihood, but some are allowed without family ties.

Refugees then receive a brief cultural orientation, including whirlwind English lessons.

In San Antonio, the role of resettlement is assigned to Catholic Charities, which has a contract with the State Department and Department of Homeland Security.

Refugees are given government assistance for three months.

Through Catholic Charities, the federal matching grant program covers another three months.

But after the six month period, the financial assistance times out, although other social services are made available to the refugees for up to five years.

During the next five years they are also expected to repay the federal government for the airfare from their home country or lose government assistance; however, extensions for repayment are relatively easy to attain.

Refugees are expected to hit the ground running, mastering a new language whilst finding employment.

Groups in San Antonio ban together to support refugee’s complex needs.

“Refugees in Texas receive limited case management services and financial assistance for rent and utilities for only six months. After that time they are supposed to be “self sufficient”.

CRS understands that that is not realistic,” said Margaret Costantino director of the San Antonio nonprofit Center for Refugee Services.

“Our mission is to facilitate the successful community integration of resettled refugees with emphasis on educational support, health and wellness, and employment.

We serve the local refugee communities by providing social support for the long term,” Constantino continued.

The challenge is connecting refugees, often with little knowledge of English or US bureaucracy, with the appropriate social services.

“Our volunteers teach English, US Citizenship classes, we assist with correspondence, renewals of SNAP and Medicaid applications” she added.

CRS also recently co-sponsored a flu shot drive with the UT Medical School, UT Nursing School and other local organizations, where 300 refugees were vaccinated.

Additionally, a free refugee health clinic run by students and faculty from the UT Health Science Center and funded by the Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics at the UTHSC runs twice a month at St. Francis Episcopal Church.

In bringing together students and faculty from nursing, medicine and dentistry the Refugee Health Clinic further demonstrates the diverse cooperation to provide free care to refugee families in San Antonio.

“The primary goal of this clinic is to serve as an initial trustworthy location for refugees to overcome their inhibitions and adequately address their health care issues,” stated Refugee Health Clinic Coordinator Fadi Al-Asadi.

Students can volunteer to tutor children, help refugees read their mail, fill out job applications and even serve as English conversation partners.

Refugees can feel disconnected from United States culture, but local organizations like CRS have provided some ways to help.

Interested students can contact CRS through their website for additional information.

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