Doing right by Syria’s refugees

By: - November 23, 2015 2:23 pm


Against the toxic brew of fear and political opportunism that has enveloped America’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis stand principles of compassion and common sense. The N.C. Council of Churches is proud to embrace those principles and to support a clear-eyed yet generous policy toward the resettlement of refugees from Syria in this country.

These are people who, at great peril, are fleeing even greater peril at the hands of the vicious Islamic State radicals seeking to rule large swaths of the Mideast. While a suitable response to the refugees’ plight of course calls for cooperation on a global scale, the Council believes we should be guided by Christian precepts of care for the needy and the dispossessed in welcoming a reasonable number of these war victims – for that’s what they are – to our nation and our state.

How sad that so many of our elected leaders are willing to disregard not only the teachings of their own religion, the Christianity they flaunt when it serves their purposes, but also America’s secular traditions of welcome to those who need to find a port in the storms of life.

No, this isn’t about throwing our borders wide open or failing to exercise sensible cautions about whom to admit. It’s about honoring the spirit of a country founded by immigrants and enriched by untold numbers of people who fled turmoil and danger abroad. That spirit has not always carried the day, but still it endures. Must the Statue of Liberty now be so callously mocked?

President Obama has taken a prudent, measured and humane approach to the crisis. The U.S. would accept in the range of 10,000 refugees from Syria, out of a pool that totals in the millions.

Naturally there is a screening process to guard against the possibility that America-hating terrorists might exploit the chance to come here in the guise of refugees and wreak havoc. That process is lengthy and, if past results are any sign, effective.

Governors at the gates

Several of the nation’s governors, including North Carolina’s Pat McCrory, have been quick to criticize the Obama policy as too risky. True, their opposition coalesced after the recent terrorist attacks in Paris in which dozens died. Fear that those awful scenes might be replayed somewhere in the U.S. obviously can’t be dismissed out of hand, and vigilance must be maintained.

Yet when every prospective refugee is put through a months-long wringer of applications and background checks – and when so many of the refugees are women and children, unlikely terrorists to say the least – the governors’ concerns seem overblown.

The same can be said about opposition to the refugee policy arising chiefly among Republicans in the U.S. House with some support from Democrats who also would rather surrender to unreasoning fears than balance safety with compassion – and also with pragmatism. Surely America cannot be a credible leader in the struggle against Islamic extremism if it acts as though every Muslim – even those for whom the notion of jihad against non-believers is a cruel perversion of Islam, even those fleeing for their lives – is just waiting for the chance to strap on a suicide vest and go “shopping” at an American mall.

It’s hard to ignore the political calculations that may have gone into McCrory’s stance. He and his fellow Republicans think they’ve had a good day whenever they can find a bone to pick with the president, a Democrat who incites a particular kind of virulent dislike among many conservatives. And with McCrory looking ahead to a difficult re-election campaign, he could well be figuring that any refugee policy backed by Obama is one he’d be smart to attack.

What a shame that Democratic state Attorney General Roy Cooper, McCrory’s likely opponent next year, couldn’t bring himself to call the governor out for his pandering and in fact took a position that boiled down to “Me too!”

Our welcome mat

North Carolina, with church-goers and other people of good will playing important roles, has been a leader in the resettlement of refugees from countries shadowed by war, violence and disaster.

Our hospitality has been repaid as new residents have done what they needed to do to take their places as contributing members of their communities. There’s simply no reason to think that a modest number of Syrians settling here – after satisfying all the protocols of the Department of Homeland Security – pose any tangible threat or could not fit in just as well as many other refugees have done.

McCrory actually wants the federal government not to channel any Syrians to North Carolina. Better that our governor should pledge his administration’s support in helping these refugees, like others before them, succeed in adapting to their new home.

The N.C. Council of Churches has long emphasized fair, decent treatment of immigrants as a core Christian responsibility, drawing on Jesus’ teaching that we should love our neighbors as ourselves.

Refugees from violence, as opposed to those immigrants who can be called economic refugees, exert an even stronger claim on our aid and comfort. Using hypothetical risks of terrorism as a reason to exclude people fleeing war’s barbarities in a battle zone such as Syria simply plays to hate-tinged views that color the whole immigration debate, with anti-Hispanic sentiment being joined by anti-Muslim.

At the national level, the group Faith in Public Life has summoned a broad call of opposition to the efforts of McCrory and other governors to derail Syrian refugee resettlement in their states.

“Our elected officials have a responsibility to protect the nation, but turning away families who risk their lives to escape the destruction of war is unnecessary and wrong,” the group says. “America can prevent attacks without turning our backs on desperate refugees.”

The group’s statement is signed by some 1,500 local faith leaders, including Jennifer Copeland, the N.C. Council’s executive director. It goes on to say, “We stand in support of public officials and faith communities who have answered the call to take in refugees. Our nation’s elected leaders, citizens and service agencies should follow these examples and uphold the values that make America a nation that people around the world have risked their lives to reach.”

This is an effort in which North Carolinians should be glad to do their part.

Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches.

***Above image of Syrian refugee children by Russell Watkin is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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Steve Ford
Steve Ford

Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, wrote this commentary for the North Carolina Council of Churches, which was first to publish it at