Minnesota Syrians encounter refugee backlash

Open dialogue on Syrian refugee crisis

MINNEAPOLIS -- Syrian Americans in Minnesota say they've encountered a backlash against refugees from that war torn country, especially in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris.

"Islamophobia and racism is more than about just people being mean. It is a political tool," Suzan Boulad, a University of Minn. Law School student who is Syrian American, told KARE.

She said she has been encouraged by those who have asked if she's doing okay, but is also affected by the hard line rhetoric of GOP presidential candidates, Republican governors and members of Congress.

"It was a feeling like I'm not welcome here, even though I'm an American citizen. If my people aren't welcome here, then I'm not either."

Boulad was among those who took part in a panel discussion at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs Monday night, hosted by Rep. Keith Ellison, one of two Muslim members of Congress.

Ellison advised audience members to gently push back in conversations with relatives over the Thanksgiving weekend, if they hear family members lumping all Syrians or all Muslims with the terrorist group ISIS.

"This is not the time for us to be building walls," Rep. Ellison told the group, before taking comments and suggestions from members of the crowd.

Jane Graupman of the International Institute of Minnesota said those fleeing war in Syria shouldn't be treated differently than previous waves of refugees.

"We've resettled about 3.2 million refugees to the United States since 1976 when the Refugee Act was passed, and we've actually had more refugees resettled under Republican presidents," Graupman said.

She showed a list of 22 steps people living in refugee camps must complete in order to migrate to the U.S., including multiple background checks and several sets of fingerprints to verify their identities through the Dept. of Homeland Security.

"They are living in horrible conditions, and many have endured great hardships just to reach those camps."

Eric Schwartz, the dean of the Humphrey School, said it's difficult to divorce politics from the refugee debate.

"Humanitarian crises, tragically, don't have humanitarian solutions. They have solutions in the realm of politics, diplomacy and security."

One of those audience members was Rihab Naheel, who grew up in Germany the daughter of Syrian immigrants. Some of her relatives and in-laws are still in Syria.

"Syrian refugees, they're actually running away from ISIS. They don't come here to harm people," Naheel told KARE.

She said the day after the Paris bombings her 10-year-old daughter was getting the cold shoulder from classmates, and asked why.

"One boy said that she's personally responsible for ISIS, and asked her if she has a gun at home to shoot Christians."

On the bright side she has met people willing to help resettle Syrians.

"I have some strangers even coming to me and saying how can we help, do they need housing, we will even take them in."

Political divide

So far 31 other governors, including 30 Republicans, have declared they will not accept Syrian refugees in their state. Governor Mark Dayton, a Democrat, took criticism when he said he trusts the federal government's system for vetting refugees.

Monday a group of 23 Minnesota DFL state lawmakers and State Auditor Rebecca Otto signed an open letter welcoming Syrian refugees.

But five members of the Minnesota Congressional delegation, including one Democrat, voted last week in favor the America SAFE Act, which would require more stringent background checks of Syrian refugees. It still awaits action in the Senate.

Presidential front runner Donald Trump said if he becomes president any Syrian refugees already in the country will be sent back the their home country to live in a protected zone.

When asked if he favors a database tracking Syrians or Muslims in general, Trump said it could and should be done.

He backtracked a bit from that statement Monday, saying that a reporter is the one who raised the question.


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