Community forum reveals differing views on refugee resettlement

Contact Reporterwwright@vagazette.com

There are no Syrian refugees in Williamsburg, but there could be soon. Sudents at William and Mary want to let refugees know they're welcome here, if the state sees fit.

Speaking at a forum on Tuesday evening, students said the rationale for passing a resolution through city council is making sure refugees understand that they'll enter a community that hopes to support them.

A resolution does not guarantee Williamsburg will take in any refugees — the federal government lets non-governmental organizations gauge where refugees might best fit.

Those organizations factor in aspects like the availability of open housing and the presence of an immigrant community.

"It's been called good lip service, and I would agree with that," said Sam Steed, a William and Mary student and the Virginia legislative coordinator for Amnesty International.

Texas recently removed itself from the nation's refugee resettlement program, though the decision has no effect on the federal government's efforts to place refugees there.

Steed said Newport News actually voted to keep its 51 refugees out of the city, but the government placed them there anyway.

"Certainly, a lot of refugees feel unwelcome (in Newport News)," Steed said.

Other places have to make it clear that they will accept Syrian refugees, Steed said. He considers Williamsburg at the start to get similar resolutions passed around the state.

"Right now, it's very important that Virginia continue to accept refugees, whether they be Syrian or otherwise," he said.

Williamsburg's size keeps it from being able to support a large number of refugees and Steed estimated the city would take five at the most.

One of the objections to bringing Syrians into the area is the fear that radicalized refugees may seek to harm people in the communities they enter.

Andrew Vollavanh, another student, says the sheer weight of what refugees have to endure to enter the country would deter terrorists.

The process of leaving a distressed country and gaining entry the States can take as little as two years and as long as ten.

"If someone was coming here to do harm, there are much easier ways to do so," he said.

Not only is the process for refugees long, it's considered one of the most stringent in the world, Vollavanh said. Those coming in on a student visa or work visa have less red tape.

He noted that the Somalian refugee killed at Ohio State on Nov. 28 was in the country on a student visa.

Nicole Alanko, a law student at the college, said that even hours or poring over the vetting process have not given her a full understanding of it. What she does understand is its the realm of law she wants to enter.

"This is what I want to do with my life," she said. "I want to break down language barriers and deal with issues like this."

Refugees try to enter America from countries all over, but Steed said, the resolution he's like the city to pass focuses on those from Syria because of their presence in the most recent campaign cycle.

Steed says he and others at Amnesty International are bothered by how Syrian refugees were portrayed during the most recent presidential campaign cycle.

"Citizens are supportive, in general, of refugees," Steed said. "It's the Syrian refugee issue that is becoming much more politicized — that's really where the sticking point is for a lot Americans. They've been used a lot as a football in the political arena."

Andrew Langer, a James City County-based political analyst, worried that the uncertainty of civil war in Syria could mean many more refugees enter the country.

"The problems are so much endemic that to have a group of college students - who will be gone - decide to do this is not just short sighted, but very selfish," he said.

Francesca Maestas, another student who came to the forum, worked at the U.S. Embassy in Italy.

She assured the crowd of about 30 people that the same United Nations that run refugee camps around the world also vets all refugees thoroughly.

There are no refugees in allowed into America who don't endure a very thorough process, and those who don't have paperwork go through even more of an ordeal.

"I was one of the only people who spoke Italian," she said. "I handled refugee paperwork myself."

Whether they were for refugee resettlement in Williamsburg or against it, the aim of the forum is to gauge public support before the students move to city council with their resolution.

"If people left knowing a bit more, that's all we can do," Vollavanh said. "I think we'll have more [forums]."

Wright can be reached by phone 757-345-2343.

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