PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Since the 1920s, Dorcas International Institute has been helping refugees settle in Rhode Island.
Baha Sadr, the organization’s Director of Refugee Resettlement, says the Ocean State welcomes approximately 200 people every year, primarily from Asian and African countries. Refugees are recognized by the United Nations as people who have fled their native countries, and cannot return.
“They’re in fear of persecution, they have no other alternative,” Sadr said.
Eyewitness News went to Dorcas to find out about the refugee process amid repeated calls from more than half the nation’s governors, multiple state representatives and national leaders for the United States to halt its program to accept and resettle Syrian refugees here. Those calling for the program to stop cite security concerns after one of the Paris attackers was found with a Syrian passport.
Dorcas is the liaison between the State Department and the refugee in Rhode Island, helping them resettle and assimilate in American society.
“We find them a place to live, go to the airport to pick them up, and we’re with them every step of the way,” Sadr said.
But well before that can happen, refugees go through a lengthy screening process with the federal government.
Once the U.N. identifies a person as a refugee, their name is sent to the U.S. Department of State and Department of Homeland Security.
- The U.S. runs the names of all refugees recommended by the U.N. through the Consular Lookout and Support System. A number of U.S intelligence agencies also have to clear the refugee.
- Refugees are fingerprinted and have their photographs taken, which are run through government databases.
- A trained officer travels to the refugees’ country of asylum for a detailed in-person interview.
- The refugees submit to a medical screening.
- Once approved, refugees are checked one more time before they leave their country of asylum.
- After arriving at one of five approved U.S. airports, refugees go through a final Customs and Border Protection screening.
Sadr said the process can take six months to two years to complete, after typically several years of waiting in a refugee camp to get approved refugee status by the U.N. It’s vastly different from the process in Europe, where refugees travel by land in droves from Syria to neighboring Istanbul, then freely into other parts of Europe. Massachusetts Rep. Bill Keating saw the process firsthand earlier this year.
As more American governors, including Gov. Charlie Baker (R-Massachusetts) say their states will refuse to accept refugees from Syria, Dorcas says it is ready to help, regardless of any backlash.
“Every day’s a new challenge, and this is another one of those,” Sadr said.
“That’s just pure discrimination from my perspective,” Dorcas Executive Director Kathleen Cloutier said, referring to calls from several Republican presidential candidates to settle Syrians in Muslim countries, or to only allow Christian refugees into the U.S.
“I would say people’s fears are unfounded,” she added, pointing to the intense screening process the United States has.
Cloutier says current events in the past like wars and disease outbreaks have also colored the public opinion about whether people from the affected nations should come to the U.S.
Governor Gina Raimondo has said she will decide what to do when and if the federal government asks Rhode Island to house Syrian refugees. President Obama has pledged to take in 10,000 this year, a fraction of the millions who have fled Syria.
Rhode Island does not currently have any refugees from Syria, though it does have an established Syrian immigrant population. Massachusetts has settled several dozen Syrians this year.