"We urge you, Gov. Christie, as a man of faith, to reconsider your position so that New Jersey can be a state that we are all proud of — a state that answers the prophetic call to welcome the stranger," Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El in South Orange wrote in a letter last November, signed by 95 clergy members from across New Jersey.
Today, the state is home to over 200 Syrian refugees, with Congregation Beth El and Temple Emanu-el in Closter, as two of the more than 70 participating organizations of the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, a project of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.
At the recent U.N. Summit in New York, President Obama called the global refugee crisis a "test of our common humanity" and announced that the U.S. will accept 110,000 refugees from around the world in the coming year. He termed the Syrian refugee crisis "a family issue. Refugees, most of them women and children, are often fleeing war and terrorism. They're victims," he said.
I am from Aleppo, Syria, and personally have witnessed the horrors of the Syrian civil war. As the manager of a hospital, I worked with the victims and families who suffered its ravages. The multifaith alliance, for which I am senior Syria adviser, serves as a vehicle to harness the power of the faith-based and civil society collective to aid refugee integration in localized forums.
The current problems began in 2006 with a severe drought. The government increased the price of diesel fuel, needed by farmers to power irrigation pumps for their crops. When fuel prices outpaced those of crops, farmers migrated to urban centers to make a living. While the drought was a natural disaster, the human errors that followed created a national disaster.
With the advent of the Arab Spring, weak attempts were made to organize protests against the regime, but in March 2011, demonstrations in the southern city of Daraa erupted when local authorities arrested, beat and tortured school children for writing anti-government graffiti on a wall. Government forces intervened, killing four people. Witnesses posted videos of the incident on Facebook and YouTube, which led to more demonstrations by activists seeking justice from the regime.
In his public address later that month, Syria's president shocked the country by promising to crush anyone who rose up against him.
When I heard those words, I remember leaving my office to walk outside because I felt like I couldn't breathe. An eerie hush fell over Aleppo. People were bewildered, wondering what to do next.
Things got substantially worse when imprisoned Jihadi fighters were released and reconnected with former comrades in Iraq and elsewhere, which led to the rise of groups like ISIS. The moderate opposition groups being targeted by the regime became the target of ISIS as well.
As violence escalated, the government ruled it a crime to seek or provide aid to wounded demonstrators. Those of us working in the medical field could comply, or defy government orders and face detention and torture. Soon, our hospital began working in underground facilities, where we risked our lives to providing aid to the wounded. Eventually, our network was discovered and I was forced to flee.
My family and I have since settled in the United States and I recently became a U.S. citizen.
I am proud and eager to welcome my fellow-countrymen who have been resettled in New Jersey and throughout our country this year. Their road to this refuge has been an arduous one, not the least of which is the security process they have undergone. Syrian refugees are subject to the most stringent vetting and screening scrutiny of all travelers to the U.S. In most cases, the process takes up to two years.
Once refugees are here, the resettlement agencies contracted by our government assist them in securing housing and employment, but it falls to our communities and religious leaders to educate the public and lead the way for refugee integration into our culture and society. Grassroots movements by local religious groups and volunteers go a long way toward accomplishing this.
I am deeply grateful to New Jersey for welcoming and helping my people. Beyond what the government can provide, local communities are establishing the framework for true assimilation by offering friendship, acceptance, respect and dignity. I urge everyone to keep in mind the struggles Syrian refugees have faced and join me in welcoming them.
There is no quick fix for Syria right now, and some of the analyses I read seem over-simplified, with little insight into the causes of these horrors. While the Obama administration has fulfilled its pledge to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees into the U.S. by the end of September, they represent a fraction of the total number of worldwide refugees that have been admitted this fiscal year. This latest cohort joins over 150,000 Americans of Syrian heritage that already are living in the U.S. We cannot — should not — allow these refugees to feel like strangers, and to live in fear as they did in their home country. The civil society groups that make up the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees are resources for information about refugee integration, and models for community acceptance.
I admire Rabbi Olitzky in South Orange for encouraging resettlement and integration of Syrian refugees in New Jersey. Like so many other communities throughout the country who welcome refugees, it typically is the faith-based community that helps them with language skills, teaches them to drive and shop, tutors their children, etc. I hope to hear similar stories from the many other faith leaders throughout the state and nation.
I am ready to work with them. I also will continue my efforts to report on the crisis abroad, and to prompt our leaders to promote safe and effective public policies that will welcome Syrians refugees, many of whom are skilled, educated and ready to become contributing members of our society.
It is a basic tenet of all our faiths — Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist — to care for the stranger. Doing so enriches and strengthens the fabric of America — community by community.
Shadi Martini is senior Syria adviser at the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, a project of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding in Cooperation with JDC.
View the article here.