St. Louis will most likely become home to Syrian refugees, but how many will ultimately end up here and when remains unknown.
“It is the right thing to do,” Mayor Francis Slay said Thursday, shortly after President Barack Obama told his administration to take in at least 10,000 displaced Syrians over the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
Slay spoke at the International Institute of St. Louis, where president and CEO Anna Crosslin hosted a senior adviser for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to talk about the crisis, which has sent 4 million people fleeing Syria and seeking shelter in other countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, and now moving into Europe.
Jana Mason, with the refugee agency, said communities across the country including St. Louis were offering to help long before Obama made his announcement, “and we’re very, very grateful for that.” She said about 130,000 Syrians have already been identified for refugee resettlement programs and are being placed around the world.
Mason said those who will be coming to the United States will go through the same rigorous background checks for any refugees. The average time it takes to go through the system is 18 months, she said.
There is no way to know at this time how many Syrian refugees will end up in St. Louis, Mason said. But Crosslin said “we’re talking hundreds, not thousands.”
Syrian refugees already have been making their way into the U.S., but it has been only a “trickle,” Crosslin said, and they arrived before the Obama administration decided to declare the fleeing Syrians a crisis that should formally involve the U.S. This year, 28 Syrian refugees have come to St. Louis; an additional 20 are expected by the end of the year.
Crosslin said the number of refugees selected for a city is based on available housing, jobs and support services. Agencies such as the International Institute provide English classes and help refugees find employment and places to live.
The refugee population here and across the country continues to change as conflicts around the world provide refugee status to new groups.
In the 1970s, after the fall of Saigon, the region received a wave of Vietnamese. In the mid-1990s, St. Louis saw thousands of Bosnians arrive, fleeing the former Yugoslavia.
In the past few years, the largest refugee populations have come from Bhutan and Myanmar in Asia; Iraq in the Middle East; and Somalia, Ethiopia and Congo in Africa. In 35 years, the Institute has sponsored 22,000 refugees from about 100 countries or regions.
The refugee populations from a particular part of the world can shift considerably here as families move to other parts of the U.S. to be closer to relatives, or begin having families of their own. For example, St. Louis resettled about 10,000 Bosnians, but today the number living in the region is estimated at more than 50,000.
Crosslin said the Institute “will do more than our fair share if able to do so” in assisting Syrian refugees.
Slay, whose paternal grandparents were Lebanese immigrants, said the country was built on accepting people from other parts of the world. St. Louis must continue that tradition “as a welcoming and caring community,” he said.
Slay, with the help of an interpreter, spoke briefly with Mohammad Said and his wife, Samira. The Syrian couple came with their four children to St. Louis on June 16, after a year and a half in Turkey.
Mohammad attends English classes at the International Institute and is looking for a job. He previously worked as a welder.
Samira told a reporter she was happy to be in St. Louis, where her children are attending school.
“We are safe,” Samira said through an interpreter. She and her husband still have many family members in Syria and hope that they, too, can get to the U.S.
St. Louis Bosnians Inc. is a nonprofit formed in 2011 to help the region’s largest refugee population prosper. But it has grown to help other immigrant communities as they work to start a new life in a foreign land. The group has reached out to Syrians, offering food and furniture and working with local mosques to help make St. Louis feel like home.
“We’re replaying what was happening to Bosnians early on, as people welcomed us,” said Akif Cogo, a leader of the nonprofit.
On Sunday, several immigration advocacy groups have scheduled a “Bring Them Here” rally and march in the Delmar Loop. Faizan Syed, executive director of the St. Louis chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the U.S. should accept far more Syrians than is being proposed.