Unfazed by Trump’s ban, West Virginians are determined to welcome refugees

By Coco McCabe
Lynn Clarke is the president of the West Virginia Interfaith Refugee Ministry, a newly formed group that is hoping to help more refugee families settle in the Charleston, WV, area. Photo by Coco McCabe/Oxfam

‘People who are running for their lives, they know they will have a home in wild, wonderful West Virginia.

Organizers in Charleston, WV, working to resettle up to 30 refugee families a year still have one unshakeable message: You are welcome here.

President Donald Trump’s executive order suspending the refugee admissions program for 120 days and banning Syrian refugees indefinitely hasn’t slowed the plans of the West Virginia Interfaith Refugee Ministry (WVIRM) by a minute. Instead, the order, now under review by the courts and temporarily frozen, has only heightened the empathy members feel for war-weary families now stuck in terrible limbo.

“Over half of refugees are children and the thought of so many tens of thousands of children—the suffering and the pain that this is inflicting on them and tearing families apart just made me feel very sad,” said Lynn Clarke, president of the newly formed refugee ministry. “We have a timeline and we’re proceeding on the timeline. … We are going full speed ahead on our same timeline to be able to greet new arrivals this summer.”

That determination, voiced from a state that voted overwhelmingly for Trump following a campaign aflame with xenophobia, echoes the outrage that erupted globally as soon as the president signed the ban. And WVIRM’s doggedness counters the indifference of many who, according to Reuters, want to know why all the fuss regarding the ban?

“Somebody has to stand up, be the grown up and see what we can do better to check on people coming in,” Jo Ann Tieken, a 72-year-old Missouri resident, told a Reuters reporter. “Just give it a chance.”

“I’m not opposed to immigrants. I just want to make sure they are safe to come in,” Alabama’s Louise Ingram, 69, also told Reuters.

For WVIRM that’s just the point: There is no group already more heavily vetted than refugees, said Clarke.

“I have a slide on a power point that shows the five agencies that are currently engaged in the vetting process,” she said. “It’s a two-year process. It’s the toughest way to enter this country.”

The reality of refugee vetting is one of many points she patiently walks people through in explaining WVIRM’s plan to help resettle up about 100 people a year in and around Charleston, the capitol and largest city in the state. In late December, before Trump’s inauguration, the group received word that the US State Department had approved its application, filed together with Episcopal Migration Ministries, to start the resettlement program.

The premise: good people

WVIRM knows it has its work cut out for it—but is also confident that once people can get beyond their fears, they will open their hearts. The welcome that Asmael and Khetam Saifo have received is proof of that. A couple in their 60s, they fled Syria a few years ago and found Charleston so inviting that they have decided to stay and not follow their son, a medical doctor, to St. Louis.

“We started with the premise that West Virginians and Americans are good people,” said Rabbi Victor Urecki, a WVIRM member. “Everyone is fearful of things they see on TV. They think it could happen here. We need to educate people.”

Part of that education is helping to remind people of their own roots.

“We forget the message of what America stands for, what the Statue of Liberty stands for, where our families came from and the stories our families told long ago when they came,” said Urecki. “We need to retell those stories and reinvigorate that memory of greatness and what this country is all about.”

The public’s concern about security is another issue WVIRM discusses regularly. Clarke said she tackles that one by reminding people of who Timothy McVeigh was, what he did, and where he came from.

“He was the Oklahoma City bomber and he grew up [outside] Buffalo, NY,” she said. ‘You just don’t know who is going to commit terrorism. I think our vetting process is effective and keeping us safe.”

Asmael Saifo stands next to a sign in Charleston, WV, noting the contributions of other Syrians who came before him. Photo: Coco McCabe / Oxfam

Betting on an economic boon

But physical security isn’t all West Virginians might worry about: Economic security is also a deep concern, especially in a state that has seen a steady decline in one of its major industries, coal. Accompanying that has been a drop in population: the state has lost about 22,000 people since the last Census Bureau count in 2010.

“People are scared about the economy,” said Urecki. “They worry about people taking jobs and they don’t realize that refugees are economic multipliers, that they benefit a community.”

Many of the refugees hoping to come to the US are educated and want the same for their children, said Urecki. They led prosperous lives.

“They just need opportunity and chances,” Urecki said. “And what we’re trying to do is till that soil and plant those seeds. These individuals that are coming are going to be taxpayers within three months--that’s our goal.”

“I think it will just be an economic shot in the arm for the Charleston area and maybe for the whole state,” added Clarke.

None of this is exactly new for Charleston: A sign in its historic district credits the contributions earlier generations of Syrian and Lebanese merchants have made to the city. And the contributions continue. Clarke noted that one in four doctors in the community today are of Arab descent.

While the current tenor of the new White House administration may be anti-refugee and anti-immigrant, that doesn’t mean WVIRM’s hands are completely tied.

“We might have some limited abilities with what we can do on the federal level,” said Urecki, “but we can change the narrative within our own state.”

And that narrative is this: “All the interstates go right through the heart of Charleston, West Virginia. That’s a very powerful indication that we welcome people here, that if you want to find a home here, this is an exceptional place to raise a family,” said Urecki. “We grow together when we are not insular. . .  People who are running for their lives, they know they will have a home in wild, wonderful West Virginia.”

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