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Local Organizations Discuss Refugee Resettlement, Prepare For Syrians

Nine-year-old Ahmad lost both of his arms while asleep in his bed when the ISIS regime bombed his home in Syria a few months ago.

He also lost his three brothers, his grandfather and his uncle in this same incident.

Now, Ahmad is in Florida seeking medical treatment as a Syrian refugee with the help of organizations that specialize in refugee resettlement. Ahmad's story, posted on Youtube by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), is one of many.

In the wake of discussion among governors to allow or block the entrance of Syrian refugees into states like Florida, Hassan Shibly, CAIR's chief executive director said phones in their office and at other groups specializing in refugee resettlement, were ringing off the hook.

Refugees that come into Florida go through a very extensive screening process, Shibly said, but they gain access to a variety of resources once they are approved as official refugees in the U.S.

“You have millions and millions of displaced people throughout the world, and out of those millions and millions, only a handful have been accepted into the U.S. from Syria as refugees,” Shibly said. “The process is extremely rigorous.”

In the wake of terror attacks in Paris and reports of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean trying to escape Syria, the issue of their resettlement has generated much discussion recently. However, Syrian refugees have been coming into Florida for years, said Michelle Karolak, director of refugee resettlement at Catholic Charities of Jacksonville.

A lot of citizens do not understand the Refugee Act is governed by the Constitution and that aspect has never changed, Karolak said, although the number of immigrants allowed into the U.S. has fluctuated over the years.

“All of the clearances are still the same, but it has become a more high-profile issue because of everything going on with Syria,” Karolak said.

“But if we are to resettle Syrians, we will treat them equally as we always have.”

Once a refugee meets the requirements for resettlement in the U.S., a resettlement support center prepares the refugee for a security clearance process to ensure there is no risk. The refugee is then interviewed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, according to a fact sheet released by Lutheran Social Services of Northeast Florida(LSS), the second largest refugee resettlement organization in the U.S.

If approved, the refugee will be medically screened and matched with a local sponsor agency, then required to complete a final security check before departing for the U.S. The refugee then passes through one of the five U.S. airports designated as ports of admission.

Shibly said once refugees get to the U.S., they undergo extensive background checks and security checks as a final checkpoint. Then local community partners and refugee task forces like CAIR step in.

“They provide support to help the refugees get on their feet and get them strong enough to stand on their own,” Shibly said. “We want them to be able to provide for their family and contribute positively to society.”

John Barli, regional director of Catholic Charities Gainesville, also said he has seen and heard about Syrian refugees entering the U.S. for years.

“If we were called upon by the state or another organization to help the refugees, we would help them as we would help any other homeless person,” Barli said. “But as far as I know, no private organizations are involved with the new refugees yet. We are just waiting.”

Groups like Catholic Charities of Jacksonville help refugees with housing, applications for benefits and orientation into the community. The charity also provides English language training, as well as screening at the department of health, transportation, employment and also getting children into school.

Karolak said if there are official refugees coming through the state department, resettlement organizations can help them assimilate into society through a variety of resources.

“The program everyone comes through is called 'reception and placement.' It’s a federal program that helps with all of these things over a 90-day period,” Karolak said.

“It’s not very long, but if they enroll in the employment program the time can extend to 180 days. We always have an open-door policy for about five years after they arrive here.”

LSS of Northeast Florida also has a variety of opportunities and resources for individuals and community groups who want to help refugees resettle in Jacksonville.

“At Lutheran Social Services, we look forward to being able to do our part to welcome any of them that end up being resettled in Jacksonville,” said John Daigle, spokesman for LSS of Northeast Florida.

Shibly, who came to the U.S. as an immigrant, said he understands the necessity of having people show you what to do and where to go.

The refugees deserve that same respect, he said.

“We owe it to them to provide whatever assistance we can to help make the world better,” he said. “We can’t allow enemies abroad to divide us here at home. We have to stand united against all forms of extremism.”

Shelby is a reporter for WUFT News who may be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news @wuft.org