Correction: This story has been updated to correct a missing word in a quote from Rochester Hills resident Dick Manasseri.
More Syrian refugees have settled in Michigan than any other state since the Syrian civil war started five years ago, and more are expected to arrive this summer despite the state’s desire to restrict them.
According to the U.S. State Department, 505 Syrian refugees settled in Michigan between May 2011 and May 31, 2016. Most live in the Metro Detroit area and primarily in Oakland and Wayne counties.
“It’s not a surprise and, in my opinion, it’s not a very high number,” said Jeralda Hattar, director of immigration and refugee services for Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan. “Michigan has been home to a large number of refugees from all over the world for a long time.”
Gov. Rick Snyder, meanwhile, has said he wanted to stop Syrian refugees from coming until they could be properly vetted. But his wishes are largely symbolic, since state governments have no say in how many refugees are resettled in their communities.
The subject of Syrian refugees has been a lightning rod across Michigan and much of the country. Some say allowing them to settle in the U.S. opens up the possibility of attacks by terrorists posing as refugees. Others argue those concerns are overblown.
More than 4,600 Syrian refugees have relocated to the U.S. between May 2011 and May 31, 2016, according to the state department.
The highest number of Syrian refugees have settled in Michigan. The second highest, 496, settled in California, followed by Arizona with 368, Pennsylvania with 364 and Texas rounded out the top 5 at 359. It also said no Syrian refugees relocated to 12 states, including Alabama, Delaware, Hawaii and Iowa, or in the District of Columbia.
“We don’t know that we are going to always be necessarily the largest state receiving Syrian refugees — it’s early on in the resettlement of Syrian refugees, and sometimes they naturally gravitate to locations, as they seem to be doing with Michigan,” said Chris Cavanaugh, director of refugee resettlement on the state’s west side for Samaritas, a Detroit-based nonprofit formerly known as Lutheran Social Services of Michigan.
“Certainly, big states like Texas, California and New York resettle in large numbers.”
Cavanaugh said more Syrian refugees will be coming to Michigan soon. He said Samaritas expects to resettle more than 300 refugees in southeast Michigan between July and September. He added the nonprofit is working to expand its services in Ann Arbor to accommodate the influx.
“The trend of resettlement is definitely picking up in terms of numbers of Syrians, as we see the processing and screening overseas in Jordan and Turkey has been quite robust in the last six months to meet national goals of welcoming large numbers of Syrian refugees in the coming months and year,” Cavanaugh said.
Samaritas has resettled the largest number of refugees in the state. As of May 10, it has helped 125 settle in Michigan, Cavanaugh said.
U.S. officials said at least 10,000 Syrian refugees will settle across the country in the 2016 fiscal year, which ends in October. They also estimate the country will welcome 100,000 resettled refugees from around the world by the end of the 2017 fiscal year — up more than 40 percent from the 2015 fiscal year.
Located on the Mediterranean Sea between Lebanon and Turkey, the Syrian Arab Republic is a country roughly the size of Washington state.
Syria’s civil war sparked by pro-democracy protests in 2011 that tore the nation apart, killing more than a quarter of a million Syrians and injuring more than 1 million, according to the United Nations. It forced nearly 5 million Syrians to flee their country. It also removed 6.5 million from their homes, but they remain in their country.
The federal government administers the program that resettles Syrian refugees in the U.S. It works with nine nonprofit organizations, most of which are faith-based, and their networks to resettle them.
The agencies submit proposals to the government, describing their capacity to resettle refugees and how they’ll handle the process. Those groups also consult with local government officials and school districts about the newcomers.
In November, Snyder proclaimed he was halting earlier state efforts to open Michigan to Syrians fleeing their country’s civil war.
Snyder said he wanted the federal government to first strengthen its security reviews of refugees entering the United States. His decision to pause efforts to welcome Syrian refugees followed deadly terrorist attacks in Paris by the Islamic State terrorist group.
Snyder’s desire to pause on his administration’s plans to expand the acceptance of Syrian refugees in Michigan remains, according to the governor’s office.
“We are still working with the federal government to create more information sharing with states regarding screening processes and placement,” Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said.
“When the governor asked for the pause, he also pointed out that those who had already gone through the application process for refugee status would still be placed, so those being settled now likely had already started the process before the governor posed those questions.”
Snyder’s pause is largely symbolic as Syrian refugees continue to resettle in Michigan because of efforts of several Michigan non-profit agencies working with the federal government.
“I think he did a terrible disservice to any community where Syrian refugees settled in,” said Bashar Imam, a Syrian-American businessman in the area and one of the founders of the Syrian American Rescue Network, or SARN.
More Syrian refugees settle in Michigan than in other states because of the strength of Metro Detroit’s Arabic community, he said.
Patrick McLean, a SARN board member, agrees.
“I’m not surprised Michigan has the most Syrian refugees,” he said. “Historically, refugees go where there are networks of their people already in place. Because of the significant Middle Eastern population already in Michigan, it’s logical refugees from the Middle East would come here.”
Samaritas is working in Battle Creek, Detroit and Grand Rapids. Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County in Ann Arbor, Bethany Christian Services in Grand Rapids, Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan and the U.S. Committee for Refugee and Immigrants, both in Detroit, and St. Vincent Catholic Charities in Lansing also are all helping refugees resettle in Michigan.
Metro Detroit has a sizable existing Syrian community. More than 6,400 people with Syrian ancestry live in the area, according to the latest estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau.
In addition, local groups have lobbied for Syrian refugees to come to the area, Cavanaugh said.
“Plus, the Middle Eastern population in Detroit is open and willing to help Arabic-speaking and Muslim refugees,” he said. “We have a long history of that in Metro Detroit.”
However, not everyone is pleased Michigan leads in the number of Syrian refugees.
Dick Manasseri, a Rochester Hills resident, is among them. A frequent contributor to a website called the Refugee Resettlement Monitor-Michigan, he’s been critical about Syrian refugees resettling in Michigan because he believes they can’t all be vetted properly.
“People in law enforcement, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, all say refugees can’t be vetted because there are no records for them,” he said. “Our own government says that. Since Syrian refugees are not vettable, Michigan being No. 1 for where Syrian refugees are settled is a point of concern.”
Hattar said concerns like that are unfounded.
“In my 25 years of working with refugees, I’ve heard all kinds of concerns and comments from people,” Hattar said. “But I don’t know of any actual terrorist attacks or attempted attacks by any of the refugees I’ve worked with. If that would have happened, I would have heard about it.”
Staff Writer Chad Livengood contributed.
Syrian refugees in America
Michigan is first among states where refugees have been placed since May 2011, shortly after the Syrian civil war began. Here is a breakdown of states where Syrian refugees have settled:
New Hampshire: 8
New Jersey: 158
New Mexico: 10
New York: 165
North Carolina: 190
Rhode Island: 34
South Carolina: 2
West Virginia: 1
Source: U.S. Department of State