Testimony of Georgette F. Bennett, Ph.D.
Founder, Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, a project of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding in cooperation with JDC
Before the New York City Council Committee on Immigration
June 27, 2016
I’m Georgette Bennett, Founder of the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees and the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, of which MFA is a part. I’m a Jew, a child of Holocaust survivors and a refugee. My parents and I arrived in this country with the designation “stateless” written on the passenger manifest of the ship that brought us to New York. For all these reasons, I’ve felt compelled to act in the face of the immense suffering of the Syrian people.
Resolution 1105 is consistent with the Administration’s commitment to admit at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the current fiscal year as well the America’s historical commitment to take in half of the worldwide number called for by UNHCR. But, those of us who are sympathetic to the cause of Syrian refugees are operating in a hostile political climate. So, I want to spend my few minutes before this Committee to provide you with information that will help you counter the religious prejudice that underlies so much of the anti-refugee rhetoric we hear today.
Myth: Syrian refugees are welfare dependent and will be a drain on the economy.
Median income for Syrian families is $62,000
49% of Syrian men in the U.S. work in high-skilled occupations – e.g. managerial, business, science
39% of Syrians are highly educated vs. 30% U.S. born.
Countries, such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, bearing the greatest burden of the Syrian refugee crisis, are experiencing growth in their GDP.
Myth: Syrian refugees (code for Muslims) will overrun the U.S.
Myth: By bringing in Syrian refugees, we will be importing terrorists. If we bring in any refugees, they should be Christians.
Of 2,174 Syrian refugees admitted between 2011 and 2015, 2.4% are Christians; 96% are Muslims.
Less than 10% of the Syrian population is Christian, and they have fled at lower rates than Muslims. Focusing only on Christians fails to address the needs of the majority of refugees.
Of 750,000 refugees resettled in the U.S. since 9/11, fewer than 10 have been implicated in planning terrorist activities. None of them were Syrian.
Two-thirds 2/3 of applicants referred for resettlement in the U.S. are women and male children under 11. They are themselves escaping terrorists. ISIS has, at times, condemned them for leaving Syria and rejecting its extremist ideology.
Myth: If we allow Syrian refugees to come to the U.S., we will import the same chaos and terrorism that Europe is experiencing.
The U.S. process for resettling refugees is different from Europe’s. Europe processes refugees after they arrive on European soil. The U.S. lets Syrian refugees into the country after an enhanced screening process, and before they come to America.
Historically, Muslim immigrants have been better integrated into U.S. society than in many Western European countries, where many report feeling marginalized and alienated.
Myth: Most Americans don’t want to accept any Syrian refugees at all, and there’s no changing their minds.
According to a Bloomberg Politics poll, 53% of Americans reject admitting any Syrian refugees. In contrast, a recent TENT Survey of 11 countries, including the U.S., shows that the messages that they hear affects their attitudes.
The single greatest source of resistance to admitting Syrian refugees is the fear of bringing in terrorists. But, unless we rescue these displaced people – especially children, who have been deprived of years of education – we are contributing to the thing that we most fear. The longer these refugees are left in limbo, the more vulnerable they are to radicalization.
On the scale of religiosity, the US ranks highest in the developed world. Religious piety has become a litmus test for elected office. But, one cannot lay claim to being a pious person if one ignores the basic tenets of our faiths: to care for the stranger and take action in the face of human suffering.
When religions unite to speak in one voice, they are a powerful antidote to the hateful speech and misinformation that prevails today. MFA brings moral authority to what has deteriorated into a partisan debate. But, religious leaders and institutions can mobilize vast constituencies and communication networks on behalf of Syrian war victims.
The multifaith community is in a unique position to counter the rejectionist arguments that feed the current hostile environment. But, this crisis also provides huge opportunities for building bridges of understanding and respect between religions as well as enhancing our security by supporting our allies and reducing the conditions for radicalization.