Dayton prepared for Syrian refugees

City is among 18 nationwide set to help asylum-seekers.

Some four million Syrians are classified as refugees, having fled a four-year civil war that has killed more than 250,000 people.

Today, most of them live in countries neighboring Syria. But in a few years, some of them could become Daytonians, according to community leaders who work with the local immigrant populations.

If this happens, the process will begin with a phone call from the U.S. State Department to Catholic Social Services of the Miami Valley in Dayton, one of the many nonprofit agencies the government has relied on for assistance with refugees.

“We are the first point of contact,” said Laura Roesch, executive director of Catholic Social Services.

There have been no local arrivals of Syrians yet, Roesch said. But they are expected, in time.

Last month, President Barack Obama instructed his administration to take in at least 10,000 displaced Syrians over the next year. So far, millions of Syrians have fled their homeland, with many traveling to Europe to escape the conflict.

“It’s just a matter of time right now,” said Najah Melhem, an East End Community Services case manager in Dayton who speaks fluent English, Arabic and Spanish.

If the State Department asks Roesch’s organization to accommodate Syrian families, she expects the community would be able to do it.

“We wouldn’t outright reject any population,” Roesch said.

The process typically unfolds this way: A staff member from Roesch’s agency will meet the Syrian family, perhaps at Dayton International Airport. If someone needs immediate medical attention, that staff member will arrange that.

Next will come a search for affordable housing and English classes.

That’s just the start, said Jan Lepore-Jentleson, executive director of the East End Community Services Center.

“I’m talking about, gut level, where can I buy my food,” she said. “How do I translate this document? Can you do that for me? How do I get my kids registered for school? How do I get my DP&L turned on?”

Debate over Dayton as a host city

Last month, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley added her to name to a letter from the mayors of 17 other cities saying Dayton would welcome Syrian refugees. U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, called that action “outrageous,” saying he was sympathetic to the plight of Syrians seeking refuge, but he opposed any call to place them in Dayton.

In 2013, Ohio accepted 2,788 refugees of the nearly 70,000 immigrants who resettled in the United States, according to the State Department’s latest figures.

A New York Times story today notes that the U.S. government gives local offices of the nine aid organizations $1,975 per refugee to cover initial rent, clothing and food, in addition to covering administrative costs for the national offices that comes to an average of $270 per refugee, the State Department said.

Dayton City Commissioner Matt Joseph doesn’t think the issue should be controversial. Middle Eastern refugees are already here and have been for years, he said. And the number of Syrians who might could come to Dayton would be small.

“There should be no furor, because it takes a couple of years,” Joseph said.

Refugee families need help navigating a maze of needs, and they can get that help from agencies, schools, churches, mosques and elsewhere. There is no single local office, public or private, wholly dedicated to helping migrants and refugees settle in.

“Right now, there are a whole lot people out there doing what they can, and they’re really exhausted,” Lepore-Jentleson said.

East End Community Services in Dayton is an important partner, Roesch said.

Funded by the Montgomery County human services levy, United Way of the Greater Dayton Area and other sources, the center works mainly with native Daytonians find jobs, get training and more.

But center case managers also work with refugees fleeing from wars in the Middle East. Last week, Melhem and her colleague, Dan Poling, helped two refugees from Iraq prepare for a forklift operator’s test. The center has also worked with immigrants from Algeria.

“We do whatever we have to do,” Poling said.

Provide stability

Every year, Catholic Social Services settles some 220 refugee families in the Dayton area, most of them hailing from Iraq and African nations, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Rwanda and Sudan.

“Employment and stable income is the first step in helping the family,” she said.

Catholic Social Services is surveyed by the State Department and other partners annually to see if Dayton can accommodate more refugees, Roesch said.

While the agency has not yet received any specific requests regarding Syrian families, she said they can accept an additional 10 percent — or 20 people.

Said Roesch, “That’s not going to be a game changer.”

She added there are other major questions to consider, including whether local hospital systems and schools are prepared to take more refugee families.

Funding for the resettlement comes from federal coffers, with help from state, local and faith-based partners, including many individuals and parishes, she said.

A presidential order to accommodate more Syrian refugees is only the start, Joseph said. Screening for medical and security purposes could take up to two years to complete.

“Helping a couple of folks is the right thing to do,” Joseph said.

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