By Joe Jenkins
The civil war in Syria has raged on for over five years, but many Americans only began to learn about the ensuing refugee crisis recently. With that awareness comes a seemingly non-stop deluge of information (and misinformation) about the U.S. refugee resettlement program that has left many unsure of how to piece it all together.
This week’s 60 Minutes special report, Finding Refuge, gives us one of the most comprehensive looks into the U.S. response to the ongoing world refugee crisis to date. CBS correspondent Bill Whitaker does an admirable job uncovering who refugees are, the process they must all go through before they the enter the United States, and the differing attitudes of Americans that greet them on the other side.
Whitaker takes us through the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, home to over 80,000 Syrians forced to flee their homes due to conflict. A small portion of them have been selected for potential resettlement to the United States—the most vulnerable women, children, and victims of torture. They wait through a painstaking process of interviews, retinal scans, and paperwork with the United Nations before they can hope to be resettled. Less than one percent of these refugees are then referred to the State Department, where the security screening process starts all over again.
“You know, there are many Americans who don’t trust government to fix the roads or run the schools. How can you convince them that this process is going to keep them safe?” Whitaker asks.
“Mostly we focus on victims of torture, survivors of violence, women-headed households, a lot of severe medical cases,” said Gina Cassem, the State Department head of resettlement in the Middle East. “[Refugees] undergo so many steps of vetting, so many interviews, so many intelligence screenings, so many checks along the way. They’re fleeing the terrorists who killed their family members, who destroyed their houses. These are the victims that we are helping through our program.”
Whitaker interviews several these Syrians, like Sulaf, a former elementary school teacher, and her 15-year-old daughter, Joody. Sulaf’s husband, a dentist, died from illness in the camp, and she struggles to find treatment for her youngest son’s autism. Now Sulaf and her family are finally headed to the United States, where they will be resettled in North Carolina.
“On behalf for me and my kids, I would like thanks for [the] American people and American government for this chance. And thank you very, very, very much. [For] save[ing] our children,” said Sulaf, in English that improves daily.
Unfortunately, there are some Americans that would block people like Sulaf from entering the United States, fearing that Syrians nationals pose a perceived “terror risk.” Following the deadly attacks in Paris last year, a contingent of state governors vowed to end Syrian refugee resettlement in their states (even after it was revealed that none of the perpetrators of the attacks were Syrian, or refugees).
Such political posturing hasn’t sat well with many Americans. Whitaker turns the story to Georgia pastor Bryant Wright, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Wright joins a growing number of faith leaders who are bucking their state’s top officials by strongly supporting refugee resettlement. After Georgia governor Nathan Deal signed an executive order denying services for Syrian refugees in the state, Wright wrote him a letter.
“Our calling . . . is far higher to follow Christ and do what Christ teaches us to do than whether there’s an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ behind your name. And that’s what we’ve got to live by far more than what people are hearing on talk radio, or on the news or from political candidates,” says Wright. “Isn’t it better to reach out and love these folks than to give them the cold shoulder? Which approach do you think might cause a Muslim refugee to be more sympathetic to Islamic terrorism? Which approach? To me it’s a no-brainer.”
For anyone still wondering why the United States should be welcoming refugees, if our security vetting process works, or if we can become a moral leader in solving the worst humanitarian crisis of our time, sitting down to watch Finding Refuge is a great place to start.
Watch the full 60 Minutes investigative report here.