Published in the Houston Chronicle on 6/20/2018
On this World Refugee Day, we must remember our neighbors [Opinion]
June 19, 2018
“H-Town.” Houston. Home of the Astros, 2017 MLB World Champs. A city known for its barbecue, queso, world-class medical centers, oil tycoons, art and Beyoncé. There are many reasons for its 3 million residents to be proud to call Houston home.
As a native Houstonian, the reason that makes me most proud is how many of our neighbors are resettled refugees from conflict zones across the globe.
On this World Refugee Day, I think back to when I attended Houston’s 2014 World Refugee Day celebration. The weather was typical for June: hot and humid. Hundreds of refugees patiently waited to enter the event, some by themselves, others with families.
It was there that I first met the Jandalis, originally from Damascus, Syria. The two parents and their five young children had lived in Houston for a mere two weeks. For two long years prior, they’d survived in a refugee camp in Egypt. Their oldest daughter, Hepa, has severe special needs and their youngest, Miriam, was barely 3. We spent the full day together and began a friendship that’s lasted to this day.
That day gave me more than new friends; it gave me a deeper awareness of the challenges refugees face — and the resilience they possess.
The Jandali family fled Syria in 2012. In the dead of night, Mr. and Mrs. Jandali were forced to choose between leaving their home or exposing their five young children to imminent danger and potential death. With what little they could carry, they left Damascus, first becoming IDPs — or Internationally Displaced Persons — within Syria, then refugees in Egypt, and finally, three years later, residents of Houston. The conflict and violence that the Jandalis witnessed is unfathomable to many, but all too common amongst the global refugee population.
Globally, more than 65 million civilians are displaced due to conflict, violence, persecution or human rights violations; 22.5 million qualify as refugees, the highest number in documented history, according to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. The majority of refugees come from active conflict zones, many from countries in which the United States military is currently engaged. Refugees relocating from conflict zones have witnessed the worst acts that humans can commit. Millions of refugee children, like the Jandalis, have grown up in a reality plagued by violence, destruction and death.
Since World War II, the United States has historically remained the global leader in refugee resettlement, with an impressive proportion of refugees placed across Texas. According to the U.S. Department of State, Texas has traditionally accepted 10 percent of all resettled refugees nationwide, 30 percent of which were placed in Harris County. DOS reports that the city of Houston has resettled an average of 25 of every 1,000 refugees nationwide, more than any other U.S. city and, statistically, more than some nations. As the Houston Chronicle has reported, if Texas were a nation, it would rank fourth in the number of refugees resettled worldwide.
Unfortunately, our era of openness and inclusivity appears to be changing. The past year saw an 80 percent decrease in settled refugees in across the state. The Refugee Services of Texas reported that 3,518 refugees were resettled between October 2016 and March 2017, but from October 2017 to March 2018, that number dropped by nearly 80 percent to only 736. This shift is not a surprise given the current administration’s policy on refugees. In 2017, DOS cut refugee admittance rates by half. In addition, travel bans have made it difficult to place refugees in U.S. programs. As you read this, thousands of refugee families, predominantly women and children, wait in refugee camps across the globe for the chance of a better life.
To all refugees who have joined our big-hearted, big-sky, Bayou City, I say:
“Welcome to Houston — and welcome home.”
Raley is a foreign policy professional and the communications associate at the Center for Civilians in Conflict. She is based in Washington, D.C.