In the summer of 2015, Americans were shaken by images of Syrian war refugees crowding shoddy boats on the Mediterranean and hovering outside camps and border fences to find safety for their families.
Thousands of miles away in Highland Park, a children’s choir was moved by their plight. During a Sunday service, they sang a hymn interspersed with quotes from refugee children they'd heard in a documentary.
Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me … Airplanes were coming and bombing and we were being hit by shrapnel.
In my trials, Lord walk with me … They are in a state of shock. You feel that they have lost their hearts.
For Pastor Seth Kaper-Dale, it was a wake-up call, one that would help transform the way America addresses and works with refugees.
“I walked out and said ‘These kids are way ahead of us. We should be doing more,’ ” recalled Kaper-Dale, pastor of the Reformed Church of Highland Park. Days later, he reached out to offer support to a refugee aid organization.
The Central Jersey congregation was not alone in heeding the call. In the decade since the civil war sparked one of the world's great refugee crises, volunteers and organizations in the region have mobilized funding, furnishings and friendship for tens of thousands of Syrians who fled to the U.S. Their efforts built a lasting network, with many groups and programs running today, long after admissions from Syria plummeted.
These fledgling humanitarian programs expanded to help additional refugees and asylum seekers in the U.S., including the current surge from Afghanistan. The impact can be seen today as these groups secure and furnish apartments, provide rent assistance and help newcomers to learn English and job skills.
For many volunteers, the searing image of Alan Kurdi was a turning point. The 3-year-old boy drowned with his mother and brother as they tried to reach Greece in an inflatable boat in September 2015. A Turkish journalist's photo, seen round the world, showed the boy facedown on a beach in a red-T shirt and shorts with tiny sneakers still tied to his feet.
“That photo really humanized the fear that families had and the suffering they were going through,” said Courtney Madsen, director of the Jersey City office of Church World Service, a resettlement agency. “It really made it a conflict that people could feel, instead of just seeing images of bombs and destroyed buildings on television.”
Donald Trump's anti-refugee rhetoric and policies also drove a wave of support, she added.
At the time, resettlement agencies were overwhelmed by individuals calling to volunteer. At the Jersey City office of CWS, donations surged 10-fold, said Madsen.
The story was the same around the country. "There was an outpouring of support," she said.
After the headlines faded, a contingent of volunteer groups in New Jersey has stayed committed to the cause. That's been critical for resettlement agencies — some of which had to close local offices and lay off staff as Trump severely restricted refugee admissions.
The former president admitted 53,700 refugees in his first year in office, down from 85,000 a year earlier. The numbers kept falling, hitting a historic low of 12,000 in 2020, as Trump slashed the cap for admissions and the COVID pandemic slowed processing.
The decline led to a drop in funding for refugee agencies, which get $2,175 in State Department funding for every refugee they resettle.
Now, that trend has reversed as the nation seeks to settle thousands of Afghan evacuees. Even before the Afghanistan pullout, President Joe Biden moved to raise the refugee admissions cap to 125,000 for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1.
A political flashpoint
In 2011, Syrian protesters took to the streets to demand reforms and justice for a group of boys arrested and tortured over graffiti criticizing the autocratic president, Bashar Assad. Assad responded with a violent military crackdown that escalated into the civil war that continues to this day.
Over a decade, 6.7 million people were displaced within Syria while another 6.6 million fled the country, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. The U.S. has taken in more than 23,300 Syrian refugees since 2011. Another 6,000 who were already in the U.S. were granted asylum, according to the most recently available data.
While some welcomed them with open arms, the refugee crisis also became a flashpoint in U.S. politics. In 2015, the same year the Rev. Kaper-Dale was moved by his children's choir, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, then a Republican presidential candidate, said the U.S. should close the door to any Syrian arrivals, even “orphans under age 5.”
Christie and other governors cited security concerns, even as advocates insisted that the vetting process was thorough. Then-candidate Trump also painted refugees as a threat and a burden, jeopardizing longtime bipartisan support for refugee resettlement.
In New Jersey, Alain Mentha worried whether America’s role in helping refugees would diminish. Mentha felt connected to the Syrians' plight because of his Jewish faith, he said, noting the Passover story of Jews as refugees fleeing Egypt.
The day after Trump was elected president, he and his wife called Church World Service to offer help.
"My wife and I talked and agreed, we couldn’t just be voters anymore," he said. "We’re going to have to up our involvement in civic life. We knew because immigration had been a big theme for the Trump campaign, that this was going to be affected."
In 2016, Mentha co-founded Welcome Home Jersey City, a nonprofit that assists refugees in arranging employment, housing and other needs. Serving about 35 families, they run a "Fun Club" that provides homework help, English tutoring, cultural conversations and kids' activities.
Five years later, Welcome Home has three paid staff, a nine-member board, a mailing list of 650 people, a Facebook group with 2,300 followers and about 100 core volunteers.
The group started 2021 with an estimated $200,000 budget, but the amount rose to $450,000 with grants and donations inspired by the Afghan refugee surge.
“There are a lot of groups like ours – groups that just wanted to help support refugees who were really awakened by the Syria refugee crisis,” Mentha said.
Volunteers from North Jersey Interfaith Cares, a Wayne-based group with members from 25 congregations, also looked for ways to help.
“The sight of what went on in these camps with children who could have been our children or our grandchildren, it touched our hearts,” said the group’s president, Jim Adreano of Little Falls.
His group linked up with Global Emergency Response and Assistance, a North Jersey organization that since 2015 has helped Syrian families with donations of furniture and clothing as well as job networking and applying for benefits. The group held picnics and hosted educational programs in donated space at the YMCA in Wayne.
The number of Syrian refugees plummeted as Trump imposed severe restrictions, but the network of civic groups persisted, even expanding their missions.
In the Montclair, New Jersey area, the Syria Supper Club invited refugees to cook and eat with local families, allowing new arrivals to earn some money while connecting with neighbors. Renamed the United Tastes of America, the group now offers culinary training and catering opportunities for a diverse swath of new Americans.
In Summit, One World One Love started in 2016 with a call for donations and has since grown into an organization with between 100 and 200 active volunteers and 2,000 Facebook followers, said founder and director Sally El-Sadek. The group has helped more than 300 families, setting up households with furniture, bedding, curtains, dishware and toys. They organize English classes and trips to parks, museums and beaches to combat the isolation and depression many refugees face.
The help is sorely needed, advocates say. Refugees typically get federal assistance to cover the first 30 to 90 days of housing costs and up to eight months of cash assistance. The goal is to move them quickly toward self-sufficiency.
Often, they end up relying on public benefits while working low-wage jobs, said Jeanne Batalova, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.
“The unfortunate side of the refugee resettlement program is the emphasis on rapid employment,” Batalova said. “People need more time to adjust, to learn the language and to find networks so they are not stuck in low-skilled jobs that have no career mobility, and that’s especially for people who come with high levels of education.”
More than prayers
Since the day a children’s hymn inspired grownups in Highland Park, the Reformed Church has transformed into more than a house of prayer.
Shortly after that choir performance, the church held a walkathon to support refugees that drew 300 people and raised about $12,000. Kaper-Dale generated $40,000 more after he was quoted in the national news pushing back on Christie's warnings against refugees.
"We had no idea what we were talking about, how resettlement worked," he said. "We just thought everybody should get involved in this."
Kaper-Dale later launched an organization called Interfaith-RISE to support refugees and asylees. In 2016, it was designated as an affiliate of one of the nine national resettlement agencies by the U.S. State Department.
The organization, which the pastor directs, started 2021 with a staff of 10 and clients around the world. But they've grown dramatically as the Afghanistan crisis has unfolded. Interfaith-RISE now has 40 employees and will open a new South Jersey office in Vineland. Of 505 refugee families the group has served this year, 180 arrived since Sept. 1.
Advocates in New Jersey said the Syrian conflict inspired not only material support but also a new awareness and activism around refugee and immigration issues. Volunteers who worked with refugees now visit lawmakers, organize rallies and address houses of worship and other institutions about resettlement.
“The Syrian situation was what moved and motivated us right away,” Kaper-Dale said. "But we said from the beginning we don’t care where people come from, but we do care that there are people in need and we can help them.”
Hannan Adely is a diversity reporter covering Arab and Muslim communities for NorthJersey.com. Follow her on Twitter: @adelyreporter
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Syrian refugees inspired Americans to help, reshape resettlement
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