In September, the United States announced it would aim to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees, as millions continue to flee the violence in their home country. , The resulting refugee crisis has raised many questions, like where can the displaced go. Is Waco a viable option? For KWBU Avery Lill reports
25-year-old Amjad Dabi describes what life in Syria was like before he came to Waco as a student in 2013:
“I mean, I remember, we’d be sitting down taking the exam, and would hear the shelling from near by and the, the walls and the windows would be vibrating," Dabi said. "War sort of became, I don’t know, a daily part of life you don’t get used to it necessarily but you sort of acquire this ability to just go on and pretend that nothing bad is going to happen.”
Dabi and his friend Andreh Maqdissi met Baylor professor Bradley Bolen in 2010 through the non-profit organization, American Voices. Bolen kept in touch with the students via social media. But as life in Syria became increasingly dangerous, it became apparent that the two needed to leave their home country, so Bolen found a way.
“One of the local churches was very kind and offered them housing if they could make it," Bolen said. "And we went through the audition and application process here at Baylor, and they were accepted. And one thing led to another and they ended up here and they’re thriving.”
But moving to Waco, also presented some challenges for Dabi. He says transportation was one of the biggest issues. In a city where waiting for the next bus to arrive can take up to an hour, it can be difficult to get around. But as Dabi notes, with optimism, the move to Waco was a good one. Bolen believes the city has all the benefits a refugee would need.
"Waco is a very loving place I think, in the sense that people look out for each other," Bolen said. "Sort of got that small town atmosphere. So it may have made it actually a little easier in some ways to get help.
Getting that help, however, will be a long process for the thousands of Syrians who hope to come to the US as refugees. Before they can even apply for resettlement, they first must leave Syria and be granted refugee status in another country. In most cases, people who are allowed to come to the US as refugees already have family here. But, the US is more likely to consider admitting people who are in vulnerable situations – like the erupting violence in Syria – and who do not already have family ties. Regardless, the process can take a number of months depending on the situation. Aaron Rippenkroeger, CEO of the Refugee Services of Texas explains.
“The U.S. refugee program is not typically, it’s not designed for emergency, rapid fire action," Rippenkroeger said. "It’s again those security checks are a very important part of that. And part of the slowness of it. And the thoroughness of it.”
Once approved for what is called a “third country resettlement,” refugees are referred to organizations like the Refugee Services of Texas. Of the 10,000 that the US has committed to welcoming in 2016, Rippenkroeger estimates that anywhere from 700 to a 1,000 Syrians will put down roots in Texas in the near future.
“I think we will see a slow, methodical increase of them in the next couple years. And I think we’ll start to see that uptake start to happen in early next calendar year," Rippenkroeger said.
There are three main things that make a city a viable place for refugee resettlement: an open job market, available housing, and a reasonable cost of living. Rippenkroeger stresses that the benefits associated with resettlement are generally limited to six months, after which time he says refugees need to be self-sufficient. A city that supports refugee resettlement, receives aid – like School Impact Grants and health screening facilities – from state and federal governments to help develop its infrastructure. But while Waco is not currently a designated resettlement site, Rippenkroeger expressed optimism that it could be if the city expressed interest.
"Waco has all the indicators that would speak to a positive resettlement experience," Rippenkroeger said. "But again if that were to happen it would happen very slowly, very gradually. Small numbers. You know, as community people and community partners become familiar with the program and how it works and the clients and the new community members that could be joining the community in that way."
While it remains uncertain how many – if any – Syrians will relocate to Waco, there will be some relocating to surrounding cities, like Houston, which according to reports has an estimated refugee population of 70,000. But for Bolen – who helped Dabi and Maqdissi, resettle to Waco as students – whether it’s a big, metropolitan city or a small, rural town that receives the refugees, what matters is a welcoming community.
"I think it’s the Swedish chef on the Muppets that used to say peoples is peoples, right? I think that’s the moral of the story that people are people," Bolen said. "We draw up boundaries but it’s not what’s important."