Last Wednesday, Rona Buchalter and her colleagues at HIAS Pennsylvania received notice that a refugee family will arrive to resettle in Philadelphia on Jan. 25. The Jewish nonprofit that works to resettle refugees has until then to secure an affordable place for the family to live, furnish it, stock it with necessities, plan an arrival strategy and prepare for 90 days of intense casework to work toward self-sufficiency.
When the family arrives, HIAS will pick them up at the airport and take them to their new home where a warm, culturally appropriate meal will await them. Then, the work of helping the family quickly integrate into not only a new community, but a new country entirely, begins.
The whirlwind process will happen 250 times this year at HIAS Pennsylvania alone, one of three agencies in Philadelphia working to place refugees in the city and help them integrate into their communities. And in the last decade as the global refugee crisis — most recently in Syria — has grown more acute, the number of refugees being resettled by HIAS Pennsylvania has increased tenfold.
“What that looks like and who’s coming have changed, [but] the experience of being a refugee has not,” Buchalter, the organization’s director of refugee programming and planning, said. “Nobody comes to a new country just because. They come because they don’t think they’re going to survive, literally, if they stay where they are.”
By fall of 2015, Philadelphia had taken in six refugees over the course of a year, in total, from Syria. By the fall of 2016, it had taken in 184. Though the refugee crisis was severe in Syria in 2015 and before, there’s an 18-month to two-year delay due to screenings that take place when a person requests refugee status in America, so the influx last year of Syrian refugees into Philadelphia was likely refugees who had requested that status as early as 2014.
More than 10,000 Syrian refugees resettled in America in 2016 — as part of a promise made by President Barack Obama — as millions more fled to Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Europe. They’ve been placed in more than 200 cities and towns across the country by nine national agencies with federal contracts to resettle refugees.
HIAS Pennsylvania is an affiliate of one of those nine organizations that receives funding from the U.S. Department of State to resettle refugees. They are funded to provide initial casework and help refugees spend $1,125 per person they get in assistance from the government to pay for housing, groceries, bills and other necessities. From there, it’s enrolling kids in school, finding adults work and getting families integrated into their communities. Quickly.
Refugees to Philadelphia and Pennsylvania are increasing across the board, according to the Pennsylvania Refugee Resettlement Program. While Philadelphia accepted 184 Syrian refugees between October 2015 and September 2016, it also took in 166 refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 85 from Afghanistan, 82 from Iraq and dozens more from across the world. Here’s a look at where refugees in Philadelphia came from over the last four years:
The flow of Syrian refugees into the city continues. This shows month-by-month change in the number of Syrian refugees resettled in Philadelphia — largely in Northeast Philly — since January 2015:
Of the roughly 3,600 refugees who resettled in Pennsylvania last year, 875 (about a quarter) were placed in Philadelphia. The most recent figures available about refugee resettlement are from October 2016, a month when the city took in 98 refugees, 25 from Syria.
Buchalter said as the global refugee crisis continues, HIAS and other agencies like it are working to ensure the steady flow of refugees coming into the country are appropriately received and placed. That’s difficult, as federal funding for such programs hasn’t always kept up with the increase of work. HIAS Pennsylvania will work with 250 refugees this year with three caseworkers, a handful of additional paid staff members and volunteers who can help in neighborhoods across the city.
Meanwhile, the process of resettlement here remains intense. Buchalter said that in addition to working with families as they’re received into the country — helping them get Social Security cards, work authorization, medical evaluations, financial planning, English classes — HIAS and other agencies are searching for landlords willing to rent to refugees and employers willing to hire them. That can be tricky.
Buchalter said she understands apprehension from landlords who: 1. Can’t meet their potential tenants before they move in; and 2. Know right off the bat that the family or individual isn’t employed. But Buchalter said refugees can be some of the most stable tenants landlords in the city work with.
“[Refugees] have fought tooth and nail to survive and to get here,” she said. “Generally they are so grateful and are really eager to make their life here work, and work well. And they’ll do whatever it takes to make it work.”
After the first 90 days of casework, the relationship between HIAS and refugees ends, unless the person finds employment through the agency. In that case, they get an additional three months of services. From there, the agency helps refugees find places to turn to in their communities to continue assimilating into Philadelphia. That’s also where Buchalter said volunteers who live in the area can kick in help to continue pushing refugees on the road to full self-sufficiency.
But Buchalter and her colleagues in the business of resettling refugees aren’t sure the steady flow of refugees into Philadelphia — or America in general — will continue like it us now under President-elect Donald Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress. When he was running for president, Trump said he wanted to limit the number of refugees who come into America, which has traditionally taken in more refugees than any other country in the world. He specifically said he wants to suspend the refugee program from Syria and would deport the refugees already here.
That leaves Buchalter uncertain about the refugee migration into Philadelphia. What she’s not uncertain about is that so long as refugees are coming to Philadelphia, HIAS Pennsylvania will be working to help them cultivate a new life here.
“All we can do is keep doing what we’re doing and know that, for all the sort of ugly climate that’s happening nationally, that we get to come to work every day and be part of creating a counter-narrative to that,” she said. “To creating the welcoming Philadelphia that we want this to be.”