Sacramento has one of the largest refugee communities in the nation. They come for the nice California weather, an affordable living compared to other cities in the state and for the warm welcome that a diverse community like ours offers.
I wanted to learn who these refugees are, so I contacted three of the local resettlement agencies. They help refugees with resources during the first three months after they arrive. At World Relief I met Khaleel Yasir. He told me “The refugees need more people who have experience with the things to do for them, like transportation, applying for benefits, the most important is to get doctor appointments. So, really I feel happy to help the people with these things.”
He said, “When they arrive in the beginning, they have a problem with the transportation, so we have to cover the transportation to help them. Mostly they need to come to the Arabic market according to their tradition to buy their foods—their halal foods.” Khaleel said he applied for them for benefits like CalWorks, CalFresh, cash aid at the Department of Human Assistance.
The reps I spoke with at the agencies said refugees face all kinds of problems just trying to assimilate, some of them facing discrimination on a daily basis. Initially, I was going to interview some caseworkers and refugees at International Rescue Committee but they said the organization is holding back from facilitating media appearances for their refugees. According to a local media relations rep, refugees in other cities were harassed and attacked after appearing on TV.
The FBI just released a report that shows hate crimes against Muslims are at their highest since 9/11; there was a 69 percent increase in anti-muslim offenses between 2014 and 2015.
One group that is vulnerable to suspicion and discrimination is Syrian Refugees. Of the 5 million people who have fled the country since 2011, just about 1,700 had resettled in the U.S. in 2015 and by the end of 2016 President Obama has set to welcome 10,000.
Today, no state welcomes more refugees than California. Kirt Lewis, the Sacramento director at World Relief said “there’s four active resettlement agencies here in Sacramento—World Relief being one of them along with IRC, Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services.”
He said that “in 2012, that year, amongst the three active resettlement agencies at that time, we resettled around 850 refugees into the area that year. This past year, the four resettlement agencies resettled around 3,500 refugees and there’s been some estimates that that might go up to 4,000 this year.”
That could change under Trump if he does what he promised: that he wouldn’t just stop refugees from coming in but he would send them back. While campaigning last year, he said "I'm putting the people on notice that are coming here from Syria as part of a mass migration, that if I win, they are going back."
President elect Trump also said Syrian refugees “could be the great Trojan horse of all time.”
I asked Kirt about this scenario. He said “Well, it’s definitely the most extensive immigration process for anybody who’s coming to the United States—immigrating to the United States.”
He said that no one coming to the United States goes through a more thorough process than a refugee. “The U.S. process of vetting typically takes between one-and-a-half to three years. And that’s just another story that people don’t know. And they fill in the blanks when they don’t know, they just feel like maybe people are just showing up at airports and it’s not.”
That involves multiple intelligence agencies, health screenings, in-person interviews, collecting biometrics and fingerprints and retinal scans.
Khaleel introduced us to the Al Kabani family, they are Syrian and they have only been here for one month. “Before the war we were living nice life in Syria, everyone has a business, especially for him has a bakery business to do desserts, sweets, everything and he says after that when the war started in Syria the war took everything,” Mr. Al Kabani told me.
He said, “I moved from Hommes, his city in Syria, to Lebanon. He stayed there just 10 days and then moved to Turkey for three and a half years. So he says that “we applied through the United Nations to be an American so after that, after three and a half years they approved our case and they let us move to Sacramento.”
I asked him about Donald Trump’s comments about Syrian refugees like himself and his family. He told me that he thinks that was just campaign talk, “just for election but we are sure that he will change everything and we are sure the American government and the American people will not do that because they live together so they will not do that for the Muslim or for the Arabic people.”
He says he doesn’t wish to rely on the government for long and wishes to open a bakery just like the one he had in Syria. He says he wants to be a teacher again.
Khaleel told me that he is also a refugee and he has a friend to thank for that. Captain Joshua Fjelstad was a First Lieutenant in Iraq when he requested a translator to help him communicate with locals in the rural area where they were stationed.
He reminisced about the first time he met Khaleel. “I remember coming back from a mission, not knowing he was gonna be there and there’s some guy standing in shorts and t-shirt standing in the kitchen making food when I walked in... who the heck are you?”
He said Khaleel introduced himself, they put him in a bunk and he got along with everyone. “It was cool cause all of a sudden all these conversations we had wanted to have with people we started to have,” Josh said.
Later on, he helped Khaleel get a Special Immigrant Visa. “I had heard that he’d wanted to come back and heard of this program while we were there called the special immigrant visas, I don’t remember if I knew what it was called, but I knew that there was a program for folks like Khalil that worked for the U.S. government to come back and why wouldn’t I do what I could.”
Special Immigrant Visas or SIV’s are granted to a small number of refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan - According to the US State Department, about 1,500 refugee families in the US have been granted those since 2007.
Josh said he is glad to see Khaleel “here doing what he was good at there. So, he just wanted to help the local people there and he wants to keep doing the same thing here.”
Josh and his relatives now welcome refugees into their family and celebrate American holidays like 4th of July and Thanksgiving together.