As U.S. Politicians Shun Syrian Refugees, Religious Groups Embrace Them | KUOW News and Information

As U.S. Politicians Shun Syrian Refugees, Religious Groups Embrace Them

Aug 10, 2016
Originally published on December 8, 2016 9:48 am

When 31 governors called for a ban on Syrian refugees coming into the U.S. after last November's terrorist attacks in Paris, it united faith-based communities across the country. They are challenging the wave of opposition to these refugees by taking a leading role in resettling them.

"If they didn't have the churches and synagogues providing what they do, this system would collapse," says Jennifer Quigley, referring to the federal resettlement program that is now under attack from Congress and many governors.

Quigley is a strategist for refugee protection with Human Rights First, an advocacy group that has pressed the administration to increase Syrian resettlement from the pledged goal of 10,000 in 2016 to 100,000 in fiscal year 2017.

In Highland Park, a diverse, densely populated township in central New Jersey, a young pastor, the Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, has become a powerful advocate for refugees, raising money, creating an interfaith coalition and starting a refugee-staffed church cafe.

"Refugees are facing crises every day against extremists in the world. We need to stand with refugees, especially now," he says.

Kaper-Dale and his wife, Stephanie, serve as co-pastors at the Reformed Church of Highland Park. Their local interfaith coalition has supported 14 refugees so far this year from countries including Colombia and Syria.

In addition, Kaper-Dale's church is supporting a Syrian family applying for asylum.

Their interfaith coalition is committed to resettling 50 more refugees from Africa and the Middle East, who are expected to start arriving in the fall.

Last November, Kaper-Dale organized a rally two days after the Paris attacks. He says 300 people took part from 30 different congregations.

"Five major faiths showed up, stopping at seven houses of worship to hear Scripture and proclamations from community leaders about why we are to welcome refugees," says the 37-year-old activist pastor.

Even as Congress and President Obama fight over whether to accept Syrians under the current federal program, there is a "real desire at the grass roots, stepping up to the plate in new ways," says Shaun Casey, the State Department's special representative for religion and global affairs.

Casey has visited refugee support groups in states where governors oppose resettlement.

"Different religious communities are meeting each other for the first time over refugee resettlement. It's happening all across America," he says. "They are all animated by theology; this is fundamentally who they are."

At the Highland Park Reformed Church, the commitment to the gospel is demonstrated in the church kitchen, where the smell of baked chicken and Middle East spices gusts from the oven. In April, the church opened the Global Peace Café, a community-based restaurant. The menu is as varied as the refugee chefs who cook here.

"We have Najla from Syria, we've got Yvonne from the Congo, we've got Jose from Colombia," says Kaper-Dale, introducing the kitchen staff on the day of my visit.

At a time when the dominant political narrative paints refugees as a security risk, the café demonstrates that refugees have something to offer, he says — a positive picture "around empowering people as they come to this country for the first time."

Syria is on the menu when I visit. Najla is the day's chef. She asks to withhold her last name to protect relatives still in Syria. She supervises the cooks, and chops neat piles of mint, lemons and eggplant. Then she corrects the spices for a lunch prepared for more than 40 diners, based on recipes from her homeland.

For some local customers, it's their first taste of Syrian cuisine.

"When they taste Syrian food, they like it too much, and they come back again to eat it," she says.

Najla arrived in the U.S. 10 months ago with her husband and daughter, after the United Arab Emirates abruptly canceled a residency permit — which ended her job at an insurance company in Dubai. The family was forced out and feared a return to Syria.

Kaper-Dale's church found out about her case via a nonprofit that helps asylum seekers, and stepped in to contact a lawyer for the U.S. asylum process, found and furnished an apartment — and offered Najla a turn as a chef once a week at the café.

"At the time, we were primed to receive refugees, but no agency was sending them our way. We decided to stretch into Syrian asylees," says Kaper-Dale.

This small church is part of a larger movement of defiant faith-based groups challenging state governors. These groups have had a hand in the majority of resettlement cases in the U.S.

New Jersey's Republican Gov. Chris Christie notified Washington in April that his state would no longer support refugee resettlement. But Christie has no authority over a federal program that has resettled more than 3 million refugees since 1975.

"The state doesn't have any authority to do anything to stop us," says Kaper-Dale. Christie, he says, "has really been a leader in Islamophobia, as far as I'm concerned, in refugee-phobia," but has no legal power to bar refugees.

On weekdays, Kaper-Dale's church is more active than on Sundays. There are prayer groups, an AA meeting, a thrift shop and an after-school program. The largest gathering by far is in the meeting room for the refugee resettlement team.

Kaper-Dale opens the meeting with a short prayer and the group draws up an action plan for the 50 refugees, about 12 families, they expect to be arriving soon.

The committee must find housing, assign drivers for the required medical exams, schedule English classes, get the children registered for school, find jobs for the new arrivals and get them to a mosque on Friday for worship. A full-time social worker is on call for refugees who arrive from war zones and are dealing with trauma and loss.

"We have more congregations who are active in our coalition than we have families arriving," says Kaper-Dale.

The U.S. is committed to resettling 75,000 refugees total in 2016, with an additional 10,000 Syrians. There is a significant increase proposed by the administration to resettle 100,000 refugees total in 2017, but Congress has signaled opposition to the program by capping the resettlement budget at the 2015 level, says refugee advocate Quigley.

State legislatures are also challenging refugee resettlement with anti-refugee legislation. In 2016, Quigley says, "We saw 52 bills in state legislatures."

Like New Jersey, Kansas also recently bowed out of the federal resettlement program. Both Texas and Alabama sued the federal government in an attempt to halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees. In June, a federal court rejected the Texas lawsuit, citing the 1980 refugee act that bars discrimination against a particular group.

In their haste to bar refugees, "You have these governors who forget the Constitution," Quigley says. "Not only is it unconstitutional, these are victims of ISIS," she says of the Syrians who have been cleared for resettlement by the U.N. refugee agency and an extensive U.S. vetting program. "What's more American than welcom[ing] those refugees?"

For Kaper-Dale, welcoming refugees is at the core of every faith tradition. "We are supposed to be good neighbors," he says, "and especially when someone is a victim of the world's abuse."

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Last year 31 governors said they would not resettle Syrian refugees in their states. They said there's not enough security screening. That helped inspire a movement of people who want to welcome Syrians to this country. The U.S. plans to bring in 10,000 Syrians by the end of this fiscal year. That would be October. NPR's Deborah Amos visited a church in New Jersey that is organizing to help refugees as they flee wars.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: We're going to start this part of the story in a church kitchen. The smell of roasted chicken and Middle East spices gusts from the oven. This is the Reformed Church of Highland Park, N.J. The cooks are preparing lunch for a church cafe that opened in April. The aim is to raise money and momentum to provide a safe haven for refugees. The young pastor behind the effort is Seth Kaper-Dale.

SETH KAPER-DALE: Here in the Global Grace Cafe today, we have Najla from Syria. We've got Yvonne from the Congo. We got Jose from Colombia.

AMOS: What's on the menu?

KAPER-DALE: I just know that tabouli's definitely part of it.

AMOS: Syria is definitely part of it. Najla is the head chef of the day. She chops neat piles of mint, eggplant and tomato. She corrects the seasoning. She instructs others in the proper way to cut a lemon based on recipes from her homeland.

NAJLA: I could leave the pure white on it.

AMOS: For some local customers, it's the first taste of Syrian cuisine.

NAJLA: When they taste Syrian food, they like it too much, and they come back again to eat it.

AMOS: So they know what day of the week you cook.

NAJLA: Uh-huh.

AMOS: And they come.

NAJLA: Yeah, yeah, of course.

AMOS: She just gives her first name, worried about family back home. Najla arrived 10 months ago from the Gulf - Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. She lived there for years but was forced out with her husband and her daughter when her residency was abruptly canceled.

With her home country at war, the church stepped in. Kaper-Dale helped the family apply for asylum, found housing and work for Najla as one of the chefs here. Kaper-Dale says his activism is at the heart of the gospel.

KAPER-DALE: In every one of our faith traditions and at the core of who we are, we're to welcome each other. We're supposed to be good neighbors. And especially when somebody is a victim of the world's abuse, they're supposed to be number one.

AMOS: When 31 governors tried to ban Syrian refugees after the November terrorist attacks in Paris, Kaper-Dale organized a coalition and a pro-refugee march.

KAPER-DALE: Three-hundred people in this town from 30 congregations showed up and walked for two and a half hours to say that refugees are facing crises every day against extremists in the world, and we need to stand with refugees, especially now.

Let's stand and sing together.

AMOS: On Sunday morning, the pews at the Reformed Church are full. Pastor Kaper-Dale welcomes everyone by name.

KAPER-DALE: (Singing) We will seek you first, Lord. You will hear our voices early in the morning.

AMOS: This small church is part of a larger movement across the country - defiant faith-based communities challenging state governors and politicians who want resettlements stopped.

KAPER-DALE: So in our particular context with a governor who has really been a leader in Islamophobia, as far as I'm concerned, and refugee-phobia, it does feel a little bit like - I wouldn't say church versus state, but I would say interfaith versus this particular governor.

AMOS: The particular governor is Republican Chris Christie. He insists Syrians must not come here because some could be a security threat. In April, Christie notified Washington that New Jersey would no longer participate in any refugee resettlement. But he can't legally block it because it's a federally run and funded program. Kaper-Dale says his coalition stepped in when the state government bowed out.

Does the state make it hard for you or not?

KAPER-DALE: I don't think the state will make it hard for us. I mean to be honest, the state doesn't have any authority to do anything to stop us, and we're not afraid of paper tigers.

AMOS: When I come to this church on a weekday, there's a lot going on - small prayer groups, an AA meeting, a thrift shop. But the largest activity by far is a meeting room for the refugee resettlement team.

KAPER-DALE: Every committee is everybody. If you happen to be in the room, you're on the committee.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: All right. One, two, three...


AMOS: The photos are for social media. The coalition has resettled 14 refugees from conflict zones in the past six months, including one Syrian family. And they've committed to resettle 50 more refugees expected to arrive this fall.

Resettling refugees - it's a lot more complicated than it seems. Who finds housing? Who drives the families to required medical exams, schedules English classes, gets the kids registered for school, finds jobs for the new arrivals, gets them to a mosque for worship on Friday?

KAPER-DALE: Who's on the phone today?

REBECCA: Rebecca...

KAPER-DALE: Rebecca, hi.

REBECCA: ...From Pompton Plains, N.J. Hi.

KAPER-DALE: Welcome.

Our group is growing, and this is wonderful.

AMOS: The tasks are assigned before the first families arrive. It takes a team of dedicated volunteers and weekly meetings. A social worker is also part of this mix for refugees who arrive from warz ones dealing with trauma and loss and one more recent hire - a restaurant manager who runs the church's Global Grace Cafe.

As hard as it is to resettle refugees, it's even harder to be one. Ask any of the refugee chefs who work in this kitchen. But they've learned that there's power in good food. Cooking is a way to introduce themselves to the wider community. At a time when the political narrative is of refugees and security risks, the cafe demonstrates that refugees have a lot to offer in their new home. As Najla waits for her asylum hearing, she wants to share her memories of Syria through food.

It's now Syria?

NAJLA: Yeah, like Syria, yeah.

AMOS: Can I try?

NAJLA: Of course. I will bring for you. Tell me, like Syria or not?

AMOS: Oh, boy. It's just like Syria.

NAJLA: I'm happy to hear that, really.

AMOS: Does it make you happy to cook?

NAJLA: Yeah, of course I'm happy, especially here with this team.

AMOS: A team that's now like a family, she says. There are more on the way - 50 from war zones around the world, including Syria, says Kaper-Dale.

KAPER-DALE: We have more congregations who are active in our coalition than we will have families arriving. We've received 14 people since February, and that's gone great, so I'm fully anticipating that when we get to 50 people, that will also go great.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: And you're having soup and salad, right?

AMOS: It's a full house at the Global Grace Cafe. The tabouli, the kofta and the Syrian-style lemonade are sold out.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: You want almonds on your salad?

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News, Highland Park, N.J. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.