Cal State San Bernardino professor Dr. Al Mariam speaks to the Victorville Rotary Club on Tuesday afternoon. Mariam discussed the Syrian migration currently affecting Europe and how the United States should approach the issue. James Quigg, Daily Press
VICTORVILLE — Cal State San Bernardino political science professor Dr. Al Mariam stressed the importance of localized support and acceptance of Syrian refugees onto U.S. soil during a discussion Tuesday at the weekly lunch meeting of the Rotary Club of Victorville.
Mariam’s speech came just five days after President Obama ordered his administration to increase the number of Syrian refugees admitted into the U.S. to at least 10,000, according to the Associated Press.
Approximately 1,500 Syrian refugees have been cleared to resettle in the U.S. since civil war broke out in the Middle Eastern country in 2011 following Arab Spring protests. That number has more than doubled since June, when fewer than 700 refugees had been cleared, according to an NPR report.
Obama’s recent call to allow more refugees has received a mixed reaction from High Desert residents, many of whom are fearful that terrorists could be among them.
Mariam — an Ethiopian emigre and Apple Valley resident — said former President Ronald Reagan’s 1981 U.S. Immigration and Refugee Policy statement is a “practical framework” for response to the humanitarian crisis in which more than five million Syrian citizens have been displaced.
“(This situation) requires international cooperation led by the U.S.,” Mariam said. “If we don’t shoulder the responsibility, no one else will.”
And while the U.S. has shouldered a majority of the financial responsibility — providing more than $4.1 billion in aid between the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, the Office of Food for Peace and the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration as of Aug. 4 — Mariam said he believes the U.S. has a moral obligation to also provide more opportunities for asylum and resettlement.
Mariam referenced Reagan’s statement numerous times during his speech to present the possibility of a capacity for welcoming people from other nations — specifically refugees from war-torn countries.
In the statement, Reagan noted that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants and said the U.S. must share the responsibility of accommodating those fleeing persecution in other countries.
“The Syrian refugee problem is said to be one of the largest forced-migration issues in the post-World War II period,” Mariam said. “I believe we should help the Syrian refugees not only because we have a moral obligation, but also because it is in our national interest to do so.”
The current statistics on which countries have taken the largest share of Syrian refugees don’t reflect Reagan’s sentiment though, according to Mariam.
“In 2013, Syria had an estimated population of 22 million,” Mariam said. “Five million — or 22 percent of them — today are refugees. Two million Syrian refugees (have been) given refuge in Turkey, 1.1 million in Lebanon, 700,000 in Jordan (and) 150,000 in Egypt.”
In addition, many European countries have struggled to resettle some of these refugees, according to Mariam.
“Greece has accepted 250,000,” Mariam said. “Germany 100,000, Sweden 64,000, Bulgaria 15,000, Netherlands 14,000, France 7,000, the United Kingdom 7,000, Denmark 11,000 and Hungary 19,000. The U.S. has accepted 1,500 Syrian refugees.”
And while the lower acceptance of refugees into the U.S. might be explained logistically — the countries that have taken in the majority of refugees are simply in proximity to Syria — Mariam noted that accepting large numbers of refugees is nothing new in the U.S.
“Between 1970 and 1980, we provided sanctuary for over 320,000 Vietnamese refugees,” Mariam said. “Between April and October of 1981, we admitted over 125,000 Cubans, including more than 8,000 in one month alone. And tens of thousands of Somali refugees (were) resettled in the U.S. in the 1990s.”
But several High Desert residents, who expressed opinions on the Daily Press Facebook page, don’t agree with Mariam’s call for a concerted humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis.
The motives of refugees is the biggest concern among many local residents, including Lisa Ann Smith.
“The majority of (the refugees) are young males,” Smith wrote on the Daily Press Facebook page. “They could easily be people who are being infiltrated by terrorists.”
Phelan resident Jane Calhoun added that the U.S. needs to focus on its own displaced veterans.
Other residents agreed and offered comments such as, “Take care of America,” “Veterans before ISIS” and “Absolutely not” when asked if the U.S. should take in more Syrian refugees.
In response to the staunch opposition, Mariam agreed that the U.S. should be focused on its own displaced citizens, but added that the human suffering will increase if the U.S. does nothing for the refugees.
“They are absolutely right,” Mariam told the Daily Press. “You can’t simply make these policies at the national level (and) never consult the local communities. These are the guys who are going to shoulder the burden. That’s why people are having problems. Because they are not a part of the conversation.”
Mariam went on to say that when large numbers of refugees are placed within communities, it’s the responsibility of national leaders to come in and explain why it’s important for the U.S. to provide assistance, but added that the government shouldn’t be given much credit with regard to how much assistance is provided.
“The vast majority of refugees settled in this country are not helped by the government,” Mariam said. “It’s really local communities, charitable organizations (and) people with a good heart who will help these people.”
Matthew Cabe can be reached at MCabe@VVDailyPress.com or at 760-951-6254. Follow him on Twitter @DP_MatthewCabe.