Lehigh Valley Ponders Welcoming More Syrian Refugees

Dec 17, 2015

The Rev. Anthony Sabbagh and his brother Nassar Sabbagh work at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Allentown, Pa., a Syrian Christian church founded in 1916. The church is providing aid to Syrian Refugees in the Lehigh Valley and in Syria.
Credit Laura Benshoff / WHYY

Farouk leans forward at the interview table, hands clasped. The question, what do you miss in Syria, gets a one word answer.

"Everything," he said.

Farouk -- not his real name -- doesn't want to be identified for fear of retribution back in Syria.

He's one of 138 Syrian refugees to arrive in Allentown since civil war began splintering his country.

The Lehigh Valley has a large historic Syrian community, boasting more Syrians per capita than any other city in America, and that density is part of what makes it an attractive place to resettle Syrian refugees.

Following attacks in Baghdad, Beirut, and Paris last week, some local and national political leaders want to end offering Syrians refugee status in the U.S., until the vetting process can be further refined. That position met, alternately, with confusion, anger and satisfaction from Allentown residents.

"I still would say, proceed with caution," said Radwan Jarrouj, a member of Allentown's longstanding Syrian community and treasurer with the Syrian Arab American Cultural Association in the city's 6th Ward.

Even though he lobbied for Allentown to accept Syrian refugee, Jarrouj said he empathizes with politicians -- including like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie -- who have grown anxious over accepting more.

"I remember Sept. 11 ... I understand his anxiety," Jarrouj said.

That anxiety, shared by U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey and U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, is that ISIS could manipulate the refugee program to admit terrorists to the United States.

In a video statement earlier this week, Toomey spelled out his fears. "There is no way of reliably vetting people that come from these chaotic terrorist havens."

That statement is up for debate. Members of the refugee resettlement community, and refugees themselves, vouch for the thoroughness of the background checks, which take about two years to complete.

"Part of the processing involves, multiple security clearances including name checks [and] fingerprints," said Janet Panning, program director with Lutheran Children and Family Services. Intelligence agencies take that biometric information and cross-reference it with databases of known terrorists.

Since the start of the war, about 2,000 refugees have cleared that bar.

Thursday, the U.S. House passed a measure to suspend the process until security checks can be tightened. Dent voted for the bill.

Read more of this report at the site of our partner, Keystone Crossroads