The Process of Refugee Resettlement

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Encouraged movement which also helped to develop distinct enclaves within the Ottoman Empire where each community developed their own customs, traditions, and modes of governing- electing their own respective officials to collect and distribute taxes owed to the Ottoman Empire, established schools, and provided social welfare programs. Thus during the formation of the Syrian state, “it inherited a rich, diverse, and tolerant social tradition” from the time of the Ottomans. (Polk, 2013)

During the First World War, Great Britain and France allied against the Ottoman Empire and with their victory, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was put into motion which essentially divided the Ottoman Empire between the two nations.

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The French established arbitrary boundaries of their new states, which included Syria, and they also attempted to integrate French culture, specifically Catholicism, and language into the society to control the Sunni-majority. Their policies of xenophobia and nationalism failed to create the cohesive French society they envisioned and despite their continued attempts, they ultimately failed. The Syrian state as we think of it today came with British interference by forcing French control out of Syria.

With the departure of the French army, the once claimed French territories had autonomy to establish themselves as modern states. The nationalistic tendencies of French rule carried on into the sentiments of creating the Syrian state. Since the majority of the Syrian population was comprised of Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslims, the Muslim Arab identity- specifically the Sunni-Muslim identity- became synonymous with being Syrian.

This left the minority groups exposed and vulnerable.  Minority groups were interpreted as a weakness by the Syrian nationalists in forming a single, cohesive state. Syria’s identity was torn between becoming a religious, theocratic state, supported by the Muslim Brotherhood, or a nationalist state state, supported by the Baath party, although these ideas were not necessarily separate. The considered vulnerability of the future Syrian state allowed the al-Assad family to assume control.

The al-Assad family were of the Alawite minority group and allied themselves with the Baath party because the Muslim Brotherhood perceived the Alawites as heretics. They initiated their power and influence in 1970 supported by the visions of a secular, nationalist Baath party. Hafez al-Assad, predecessor and father of the current Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, and his rise to power angered the Muslim Brotherhood. They vehemently rioted and protested Hafez al-Assad’s regime but al-Assad was determined in his cause despite the hostility and discontent. His authoritarianism was reflected in his intolerance towards those that questioned his abilities.

After his father’s death, Bashar al-Assad began his governance with reconciliation towards the Muslim Brotherhood and had intentions to continue the progress made by his father, however this became stilted with droughts that began in 2006. This severe agricultural shift killed animal and crops, forcing farmers to flock to the cities to as “economic” or “climate” refugees. 

This competition for resources and jobs created tensions and hostilities among groups and catastrophe for the al-Assad authority. al-Assad ordered a crackdown that ignited widespread protests that became part of a larger revolution in within the Middle Eastern called the Arab Spring. Military force intended to quell the protests only further exacerbated the violence leading to an increased number of insurgents, partly funded of the US and Western nations. The economic and social issues that started the civil war began to transform into political and religious conflicts. (Polk, 2013)

The genesis of the Syrian civil war is widely regarded as beginning with the military initiated crackdowns on anti-government protests of the Arab Spring. Fighting in Syria has predominantly been concentrated along the eastern border of the country with particular emphasis on large, metropolitan areas such as Aleppo, Douma, Homs, Raqqa, etc. Refugees seeking to flee the violence paid smugglers to take them across the Mediterranean into Greece- a doorway with the potential of leading them to safety and security.

Upon crossing an international border, a Syrian refugee will generally make a case for being recognized as a refugee or asylum seeker. An asylum seeker is understood as “an individual who is seeking international protection… an asylum seeker is someone whose claim has not yet been finally decided on by the country in which he or she has submitted it. Not every asylum seeker will ultimately be recognized as a refugee, but every refugee is initially an asylum seeker.”

In comparison a refugee requires greater bureaucratic recognition and is defined by the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) as those “forced to flee their country because of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, membership in a particular social group”. (UNHCR, n.d.) It is essential to understand the distinctions among status such as internationally displaced person, migrant, asylum seeker, and refugee because they are specific categories with varied protections and conditions. This paper will focus specifically on refugees because of the nature of the resettlement agencies and organizations that are analyzed.

For a Syrian refugee to be considered eligible for resettlement in the United States, they must go through a notoriously extensive screening process that can take an upwards of two years. First Syrians hoping to seek refugee status must apply through the UNHCR. The UNHCR is the international body that has the responsibility of protecting and assisting refugees. In order for refugees to gain their status, they must prove that they have been running away from a “well-founded fear of being persecuted.”

If the applicant meets the conditions, a Syrian refugee may be referred for resettlement in a particular country. In the case of being referred to the United States, there is an extensive and thorough screening process. During this process, a background check will be conducted, biographic and biometric information will be cross-checked against law enforcement and intelligence databases. After, a long in-depth interview with a representative from the Department of Homeland Security will also be conducted. If found eligible, the refugees undergo a medical examination.

During the whole screening process, the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, and Department of Defense are included. (ATTN:, 2015)  Although the US, can be referred certain refugees, they accept only a small fraction. In 2016, towards the end of Barack Obama’s administration, the US resettled almost 15,500 Syrian refugees. In 2017, the Trump administration admitted 3,024 refugees. In the 2018 calendar year, 39 refugees have been resettled. (Refugee Processing Center, n.d.) There has been a significant decline in the number of refugees admitted to the United States despite the rigorous screening process.

Once accepted and admitted to the US, the stages of resettlement prove to have its own challenges. In order to provide the necessary services to the refugee community, the logistics are generally handled by nine domestic resettlement agencies. (UNHCR, n.d.) Representatives of these organizations meet and review the information of the refugees selected by the State Department’s Resettlement Support Center to decide where the refugees should be resettled.

Generally, refugees tend to be resettled in areas where a community of the same ethnicity already exists and where economic opportunities are available. (Campion, 2018) The predominant cities hosting Syrian refugees for resettlement within the United States include San Diego, Chicago, Troy, Glendale, and Houston. (Batalova & Zong, 2017) A majority of the cities are metropolitan areas with large and diverse communities there. However, cities such as those within the Triangle (Chapel Hill, Durham, Raleigh) are also chosen for refugee resettlement. In this paper, I will be specifically focusing on one resettlement agency and two grassroots organizations within the Triangle.

As stated previously, this paper seeks to understand the relationship between Syrian refugees in the Triangle, specifically Chapel Hill and Durham, and the agencies and organizations that strive to serve their needs. In order to answer this, I conducted interviews and analyzed the websites of three specific entities- the Refugee Support Center (RSC), the Refugee Community Partnership (RCP), and the Church World Services (CWS) of Durham. RSC and RCP are both grassroots, non-governmental and non-profit organizations that have their own respective programs to serve the refugee community. CWS- Durham is a branch within the larger body of Church World Services. Although it is considered a non-governmental organization although they do receive funding from the government for their work. Unlike RSC and RCP, Church World Services is considered a “faith-based humanitarian agency”. (CWS, n.d.)

Church World Services (CWS) formed in 1946 after World War II and is one of nine domestic resettlement agencies supported by the federal government. It is faith-based and support a mission to “feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, comfort the aged, shelter the homeless.” (CWS, n.d.) They follow a “congregational model” in which they believe that “sponsorship is more than economic assistance, and includes moral and psychological commitments.” Thus whole congregations become invested in the refugee cause.

They have established multiple refugee resettlement offices in the US, including a local branch in Durham. Resettlement agencies such as CWS-Durham are one of the first faces that greet refugee families when they arrive into their permanent resettlement location. The CWS-Durham provides four primary services to the refugee community including legal services, English classes, employment services, and case management services. (CWS-Durham, n.d.)

For example, when a Syrian refugee family first arrives in North Carolina, a resettlement agency such as CWS-Durham will make arrangements before they arrive. The case management services help to secure housing for the refugee family and supply the home with different household needs. The case managers help to ease the complicated transition process through “cultural orientations, connect[ing] new arrivals with community volunteers to adjust to language and culture norms, and help[ing] refugees understand their bills, medical appointment results, and school and employment expectations.” (CWS-Durham, n.d.)

Within legal services, CWS-Durham can provide assistance with legal issues including family reunification, permanent residency, and citizenship. Their English classes provide newly arrived refugees with refugees who have been living in the United States. CWS also helps newly arrived refugees find accessible economic opportunities by facilitating jobs.  Since opening in 2009, CWS-Durham have facilitated 2,261 job placements for refugees. (CWS-Durham, n.d.) All of these services are important and essential for the ultimate goal of a life of “freedom, home, and opportunity”. (CWS-Durham, n.d.) In order to accomplish their goals, CWS-Durham requires funding.

Resettlement agencies, like CWS-Durham depend on the federal dollars of the government to fund their programming. When a case is assigned to resettlement agency, the agency is able to use that money to support not only the refugee but also the workers. In the 2016-2017 fiscal year, CWS-Global received 70.8% of their funds or $68.4 million dollars from the government. The amount of funding they receive fluctuates yearly depending on how many refugees are admitted and the administration’s priority of refugee resettlement.

Generally, the funding provides assistance for three months and after that time, the agencies begin to phase out of the resettlement process. Thus local, grass roots organization such as the RSC and RCP help provide for the gaps in resettlement left by these agencies. Both organizations rely on donation and receive no government funding. These organizations also rest on the belief of “empowerment’ for their clients- a goal not heavily emphasized by CWS.

RSC is “a 501 (c)(3), volunteer-based organization established to facilitate the transition of local refugees to a new life in our community by providing them services, helping them access resources, and developing their skills to promote self-sufficiency.” (RSC, n.d.) According to their website, RSC works closely with the refugee community to provide accesses to varied services that are similar to those provided by CWS.

These services include health care, law clinics, transportation, interpretative services, loan funds, etc. When discussing with the local volunteer coordinator, one of their most successful programs is their tutoring service they have implemented. Their tutoring service allows for a local refugee family to be paired with a community volunteer to practice their English. RSC believes that learning English is one of foundational steps in empowerment as it is a ubiquitous and transferable skill.

The RCP and RSC are similar in that they are donations based and have programs that work to empower the refugee community. Their structure is slightly different because RCP have specific programs as opposed to a list of services. Their three major programs include: Bridge Builders, Youth Education Empowerment, and Food for the Family. With the

Bridge Builders program, volunteers are paired with individual families based on the needs of the families and skills of the volunteer. Youth Education Empowerment supplements the educational vacancies left by the school system by promoting an inclusive learning space. Refugee students have their own unique needs and this program is designed to be student-led initiative in which students meet together to identify different academic needs that can be alleviated with low cost/high impact solitons.

Food for the Family is also another program by the RCP that battles against food insecurity by providing fresh, local, organic produce to refugee families. They also have a social enterprise called Traditional Kitchens which allows refugee women have access to a kitchen where they are able to cook their traditional dishes.

One overarching theme among both the agencies and organizations is their focus on providing English education services and their emphasis on the strength of this program within their specific organization or agency. All of these organizations prioritize the accessibility of their clients having access to English education services. While in the refugee camps or in their first placement, children often have limited access to education.

Language, costs, and transportation are all barriers of entry within education.  Upon arriving at their permanent placement, many Syrian refugee children arrive disadvantaged because of the disruptions in their learning process. Enrolling in school requires the children to “simultaneously learn a new language and adjust to an entirely new cultural and social environment.” (Sirin, 2015) These interruptions in education can prove to be difficult to alleviate during the resettlement process.

Along with the services that they provide to their clients, RSC, RCP, and CWS all provide volunteers within the community the opportunity to serve the refugee community. This is an essential aspect of resettlement because it reinforces feelings of belonging and association. For many of the families that are resettled to the States, they come from backgrounds of isolation and alienation. Creating feelings of solidarity allow for these communities to feel accepted into their new lives.

Although these organizations provide a multitude of services and opportunities for the communities that they serve, a major drawback of the resettlement agencies is their lack of mental health programming. Education falls adjacently with mental health, but none of the organizations or agencies addressed this challenge on their websites. Syrian children are more likely to witness acts of violence and this is reflected in the way they choose to represent their experiences.

In the Bahcesehir study, 79% of the children experience the death of a family member and more than 60% experience a life event in which they feared someone was in great danger; 60% of the children also witnessed acts of violence. (Sirin, 2015) This exposure to violence can negatively impact their schooling because of the inability to reconcile this trauma into their life.

Another criticism of resettlement organizations is their emphasis on empowerment. In the article, Crystalline Empowerment, empowerment is seen as a policy that emphasizes assimilation that deepens societal division “by promoting discourses of multiculturalism that fail to recognize how Western values may hegemonically undermine and compete with different perspectives.”

It warns that empowerment can be a vague and contested concept. (Canary & DeVette, 2018) Although there is value in discussing what it means to empower another, the article does conflate empowerment with assimilation. In my discussion with representatives from these organizations, they emphasize that empowerment through self-sufficiency is the ultimate goal. These organizations provide the communities they serve with stepping stones to live as Americans in their new lives without sacrificing parts of their identity. They provide their services to the community but also work to help the community members realize their potential and ability.

Refugee communities are a vulnerable group that require care and attention- particularly those who arrive from backgrounds of extensive violence such as Syrian refugees. Within the Triangle area, the needs of the Syrian refugee community are met through both resettlement agencies and organizations. Both entities work complementarily with each other to provide the communities that they serve with the opportunities for self-sufficiency. Although there are improvements to be made in mental health services and ideas of empowerment, each agency and organization provide their own essential role.

Without these agencies and organizations, resettlement would be difficult and most likely impossible. This research project has stirred an interest in me to compare the practices of resettlement agencies and organizations abroad and how American ideas of resettlement differ from European ideas of resettlement. Regardless of the country, resettlement seeks to create productive citizens from refugees and that is half the journey.

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The Process of Refugee Resettlement. (2020, Apr 04). Retrieved from