First Syrian refugee family resettled in Savannah since start of war

Humanitarian workers have resettled the first Syrian refugees in Savannah amid the deadly fighting in their native country as the Obama administration scrambles to bring at least 10,000 Syrian civil war sufferers to the U.S. by the end of September.

The five-member family's arrival in Savannah follows resistance from more than half of the nation's governors — including Gov. Nathan Deal — in the wake of the Nov. 13 terrorist massacre in Paris. Deal initially sought to block the resettlement of Syrians in Georgia, citing security concerns. He retreated in January after he received a legal opinion that said he had no legal power to stop them from coming.

Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, 193 Syrians have been relocated to Georgia. All of them were resettled in the Atlanta area until last month, when Lutheran Services of Georgia relocated a young family to Savannah. They’d fled to Turkey in 2013, lived in a refugee camp, and underwent a security screening process before coming to the United States.

“Savannah has affordable housing, ample job opportunities at competitive pay and a welcoming community,” said Emily Laney, director of refugee and immigration services for Atlanta-based Lutheran Services of Georgia. “We expect to continue to resettle Syrian families in Atlanta and Savannah, along with the many other refugee groups we serve.”

The war in Syria has killed hundreds of thousands of people and has displaced millions of others so far. Under pressure to do more as fighting in Syria rages on, President Barack Obama has pledged the U.S. will take in at least 10,000 refugees from that country this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. But only about 3,500 have been relocated to the U.S. during the first eight months of this fiscal year.

Laney and other Atlanta-based humanitarian workers say the Obama administration has told them to expect a much quicker pace of Syrian refugee resettlements during the next three months. The government has taken steps to reach the president’s goal by dispatching additional workers to Jordan to interview applicants for resettlement in the United States, a U.S. State Department spokesman said. The Obama administration also has resumed interviewing applicants in Beirut, Lebanon, and has begun processing refugee resettlement cases in Erbil, Iraq.

Those changes, according to the State Department, “will not curtail any aspects of the process, including its robust security screening. Refugees are the most thoroughly screened category of traveler to the United States.” Syrian refugees, according to the State Department, are screened to an ever higher standard, and those checks involve multiple federal agencies.

The Obama administration has a lot riding on reaching its goal this year, said Kevin Appleby, senior director of international migration policy for the New York City-based Center for Migration Studies. Failing, he said, would undermine the nation’s “credibility with allies and others who need to share the burden of resettling the Syrians. It is difficult for us to instruct the Europeans — or even nations in the region — to accept large numbers of refugees when we can’t even meet our own modest goals.”

The debate over Syrian refugees rocked Georgia late last year after Deal signed an executive order in November that ordered state agencies to withhold food stamp benefits for newly arrived refugees and halt any help resettling them. Deal abandoned that hard line after Attorney General Sam Olens issued an opinion that found Georgia can't legally resist the resettlement of the refugees.

Since then, there hasn’t been much of a push by conservative lawmakers and activists to harden Georgia’s approach. Further, there was little mention of the controversy at last weekend’s Georgia GOP convention, usually a hotbed of debate over red-meat conservative issues.

Alex Johnson, a Fulton County activist at the meeting, said there’s still bubbling anger over the refugee plan among Georgia Republicans. And Jason Anavitarte, a Paulding County Republican who favors more scrutiny of the refugees, said he expected the level of anger to rise as the November election nears.

“I have a feeling this is going to come up again and again as the summer goes on. I can’t imagine this issue is dead or over with,” he said. “We’re still seeing attacks overseas and the federal government is doing business as usual. We can’t pretend that our security is not an issue.”

At a speech Friday in Washington, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump called on Clinton to divert funding from refugee programs to job programs for those living in poverty, saying “we have to take care of people that are here.”

Savannah Mayor Eddie DeLoach declined to comment on the refugee resettlement. But the Rev. Stephen Williams, minister of First Presbyterian Church of Savannah, said his congregation stands ready to help another Syrian refugee family that is expected to arrive in the area in the coming weeks.

“This is an expression of our faith,” said Williams, whose church has a long history of aiding refugees from other nations. “It kind of takes our preaching of hospitality and puts it right out there where we can practice it. We are a multicultural country and we are made richer by that.”