Burma native Hauling Ngaihte takes a photograph of her son Tuptung. Photo by Scott Ball.
Burmese refugee Hauling Ngaihte takes a photograph of her son Tuptung. Photo by Scott Ball.

Governments around the world are examining how they treat refugees fleeing civil war and repression in Syria after the Paris attacks that killed more than 120 people on Nov. 13 and led to an intense anti-refugee backlash in conservative political circles in the United States. Two of the terrorists involved in the Paris attacks are said to have entered Europe by joining Syrian refugees arriving first in Greece. President Barack Obama has stuck with his pledge to allow up to 10,000 Syrians legal entry in the U.S. this year, but 31 governors, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, have told the president their states will not welcome them.

Whether governors can exercise such power remains to be seen. Many legal authorities say refugee admission and resettlement is a federal issue, but governors probably can delay resettlement, at least for a while, by withholding vital state services. All but one of the governors — New Hampshire Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan —  are Republican. Click here to read Gov. Abbott’s Nov. 16 letter to Pres. Obama. Abbott has ordered officials who oversee the Texas Health & Human Services Commission’s Refugee Resettlement program not to cooperate with any federal efforts to admit Syrian refugees to Texas cities.

Only 1,800 Syrians have been placed in the U.S. since 2012, according to a  New York Times report. An estimated four million Syrians are now displaced and seeking resettlement. Canadian officials announced this week they would welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees into the country after completing background checks while the Syrians, mostly women and children, are still awaiting transit from the Middle East or Europe.

Here in San Antonio, where officials have expected 500 Syrians of the 10,000 total to arrive for resettlement, Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8) has the highest concentration of refugees living in his district. Most live in the Medical center area in apartment complexes along and near the Interstate-10 corridor between Loop 410 and Loop 1604. Nirenberg met with the media on Tuesday, saying he wants to assure the local population of resettled refugees that “despite the political football being played with their lives, I’ll do everything I can to let them know they have my support.”

During a small, informal gathering on Tuesday with more than a dozen members of the local refugee community at the St. Francis Episcopal Church, Nirenberg gave a brief speech that outlined that support and his respect for what often is  a life-threatening journey to escape civil war, violence and famine to reach a safe haven where they can seek resettlement in Western Europe or North America.  Click here to read Nirenberg’s prepared remarks.

“Just like every San Antonian, you are welcomed here, you are valued members of our community, and I will do everything I can to make sure you will continue to get strong and vocal support from me and from organizations like the Center for Refugee Services and many others,” he said. “I don’t know if I could find the strength and courage that I see in the fathers, mothers, and children that find refuge in our city. Their stories inspire me, and they make me appreciate the things that we often taken for granted.”

Majdah Gombri, an intern at North Saint Mary's University walks out of the parish after the session concludes. Photo by Scott Ball.
Majdah Gombri, an intern at St. Mary’s University walks out of the parish after the gathering concludes. Photo by Scott Ball.

Afterwards, he spoke with several attendees one-on-one and passed out his contact information – one volunteer for the center Mathu Shia, who was born in Thailand, raised in Burma (Myanmar), and then came to the U.S. as a refugee in 2008 to escape the country’s internal conflicts. Shia is about to apply to join the local police academy and volunteers with the Center for Refugee Services, where he and his family were once clients.

“I just want to give back,” he said.

The nonprofit Center for Refugee Services provides English classes, health and wellness support, employment assistance, a food pantry, children and youth Activities, transportation assistance, and basic training in “everyday life in America,” said Director Margaret Costantino.

“We will help refugees at any point in their resettlement but our main group of clients are people who have been here longer than six months,” Costantino said. “It takes a long time to acclimate to an entirely different community – learn a language, how the systems work.”

On top of the stress of resettlement, hearing that the state’s governor, among others, opposes the arrival of a new refugees from Syria can be frightening, she said “They’re going to hear from their neighbors probably half-truths … this was (Councilmember) Nirenberg’s idea to try to reassure them that they’re safe here and they’re not going to be targeted.”

Margaret Costantino Director of Center for Refugee Services talks about the event with Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8). Photo by Scott Ball.
Margaret Costantino, director of Center for Refugee Services, talks about the protection of refugees with Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8). Photo by Scott Ball.

Nirenberg said he’s been working with the refugee community since he took office in 2013 but “as a result of the (anti-refugee) rhetoric I think we’re going to have to do this more often.”

Josephine Toundamje, a refugee from Chad who attended Tuesday’s gathering, came to the U.S with her family in 2008 after waiting six years for her application to be accepted by the United Nations for placement. She and her 15 family members live in several apartments in a nearby complex near the refugee center. Her nephew, who shyly avoided eye contact, joined her from Cameroon just two months ago. Her daughter, Clementine Noudjinadji, was eager to smile and share her thoughts.

“I hope they take good care of (Syrian refugees),” said Noudjinadji, who is a certified nursing assistant at Methodist Hospital.

Most of her friends in Paris during the attack and thankfully, they were all safe.

Councilmember Ron Nirenberg speaks with Chadian refugee's Josephine Toundamje (center) and her daughter Clementine Noudjinadji. Photo by Scott Ball.
Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (left) speaks with Chadian refugees Josephine Toundamje (center) and her daughter Clementine Noudjinadji. Photo by Scott Ball.

“At this point we have not had any Syrian refugees settled in San Antonio and we are only agency that resettles refugees in San Antonio,” Patty Vela, director of mission advancement for Catholic Charities Archdiocese of San Antonio said earlier this month. “We were prepared to take 200-500 Syrian refugees in addition to the 500 refugees from other countries we were ready to accept. When are they going to arrive at our doors? We don’t know. It might never happen. What I can tell you is that the vetting process takes place overseas before refugees arrive. It’s a pretty thorough vetting process, it can take a full year.”

Catholic Charities is the only agency that processes and resettles refugees in the city through its Refugee Services program.

A bill that would tighten the already rigorous screenings of Iraqi and Syrian refugees sailed through the House last week when 47 Democrats joined 242 Republicans to vote in favor of the bill that passed 289-137.

“The United States resettlement process is the most stringent internationally. These folks have to wait a year plus before they even step foot in the United States – they’ve gone through several background checks,” Nirenberg said.

If approved, the bill would require that the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and the directors of the F.B.I. and national intelligence approve or deny each applicant from Syria and Iraq. It’s unclear how it will fair in the Senate, but Pres. Obama has said that he would veto the bill if it came across his desk.

*Top image: Burmese refugee Hauling Ngaihte takes a photograph of her son Tuptung.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...