Suzan Boulad has recently noted a new depiction of the Syrian refugees: America’s new enemy.
“Syrian refugees are painted as sort of this new threat,” said Boulad, a Syrian-American and a University of Minnesota School of Law student.
The debate on refugees escaping the deadly conflict in Syria began to unfold two weeks ago, after it came to light that one of the suicide bombers who carried out the attacks on Paris may have sneaked into Europe on a Syrian passport.
This claim led some state and federal officials to call for more scrutiny of Syrian refugees. Until a tougher resettlement process is in place, the officials have proposed a pause in the plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States in the coming months.
“I think the presidential and other elections coming up have a lot to do with that,” said Boulad, whose aunt and cousins still remain in Syria. “There’s always a convenient scapegoat in society. It’s unfortunate that those political elements have a very real impact on people’s lives.”
Petition against Syrian refugees
Thousands of Minnesotans have also responded to the issue as they took to the Internet to sign a petition that accentuated their demand to keep Syrian refugees out of the state.
The petition drew more than 21,000 online protesters who signed it in support of closing the doors to the refugees from Syria. The petition went live after Gov. Mark Dayton’s released a statement last week welcoming Syrian refugees.
Dayton’s remarks came after at least 31 governors — almost all Republicans — vowed to prevent Syrian refugees from coming to their states and demanded a halt of the refugee admission plan.
“I want to protect the people of Minnesota every bit as much those governors want to protect the people of their states,” Dayton said on Nov. 17. “To stand up there with swagger, and say ‘I’m going to prevent the wrong people from entering my state’ to me is just ludicrous.”
Many Minnesotans, however, don’t share the governor’s sentiment of welcoming the refugees from Syria — and elsewhere.
“No refugees please,” said Patrick Jonas, of Sartell, in one of more than 80,000 comments on the petition page. “It only takes one bad apple to ruin everything. Let them battle [their] own war.”
Steve Lindom, of Duluth, added: “We don’t want any Muslims in this state. We have homeless veterans here that can’t get help. We have homeless women and children here that can’t get help.”
Gene Baum, another commentator from Minneapolis, wrote: “They can’t be properly vented, protect our residents.”
Standing with refugees
Other Minnesotans are standing in solidarity with Syrian refugees, who are escaping the prolonged conflict in their homeland — a conflict that has so far claimed the lives of more 300,000 people.
“Our experience in the past two weeks has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Micki Schuneman, director of refugee services at the International Institute of Minnesota. “We’ve gotten hundreds of e-mails from people wanting to support refugees in Minnesota and offering to volunteer.”
She added: “The e-mails and the voicemail messages I’ve gotten have been from people saying that they are hearing the rhetoric in the news about people not wanting to help refugees — and that they want to help.”
Last weekend alone, the institute received more than 400 volunteer applications and donations, including coats, diapers and baby supplies.
For Ben Casper, director of the Center for New Americans and professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, Minnesota’s spirit of welcoming Syrian refugees doesn’t surprise him.
“Minnesota has an extraordinary history and culture of commitment to welcoming refugees,” Casper explained. “Minnesota stands out in states as a home to refugee populations over centuries.”
The process explained
More than 80 people assembled Monday night at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs for a panel discussion aimed at dispelling misconceptions about the refugee resettlement process, which some politicians have suggested isn’t secure enough to vet refugees.
Jane Graupman, executive director of the International Institute of Minnesota who was among the panelists, rebutted that claim. She explained that refugees have to go through a list of 22 steps in a process that begins before prospective refugees leave the camps for the U.S.
Those steps, she added, include multiple background checks, several intense interviews with immigration authorities, and security screenings to verify their identities through the Department of Homeland Security.
For some, it takes two years to complete the process in the camps; four years for others, depending on the cases of each family or individual.
Laura Tripiciano, a longtime immigration lawyer, told MinnPost that many politicians may know about the process, but are ignoring the facts and are catering to certain voters who aren’t happy with the changing faces of Minnesota.
“Don’t mess with people’s lives like that,” she said of the elected officials, who she said play to the fears of the less informed. “You’re affecting people on a very personal level — being separated from their families or putting them in harm’s way.”
An appeal to leadership
Eric Schwartz, dean of the Humphrey School who was also among the speakers on the panel, applauded those who have opened their doors to the refugees seeking refuge in Minnesota — and in the other parts of the country.
Schwartz encouraged state and federal officials to stand up for what’s right in times of difficulties. “When times are easy, leadership is easy,” he told the audience.
He added: “Leadership becomes more difficult when you have to exercise political courage. This is the time when politicians who should know better, should know better.”
Rep. Keith Ellison, who organized the event, encouraged the crowd to push back in conversations if they hear family members or friends who are depicting all Syrians or all Muslims as terrorists.
“Individually,” he told the crowd, “calling out this negativity would mean a lot and would discourage people from continuing that.”
Ibrahim Hirsi can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @IHirsi.