Against the backdrop of a national debate on immigration and attempts by the Trump Administration to block the arrival of new refugees from Syria and other countries, dozens of North County families are helping the 200 or so Syrian refugee families already living in San Diego County.
Coordinating those efforts is Heart 4 Refugees, a nonprofit group formed last fall by several Syrian-American friends in San Diego County.
“We have two choices: we can turn our backs or we can show them love. When you show them love, you get love back. They’re human beings, they need help like anybody else,” said Kinda Arzon, vice president of Heart 4 Refugees and a resident of San Elijo Hills in San Marcos.
Among those who answered the call for help was Deanne Rudman of Solana Beach. She and her family have adopted a Syrian refugee family of six people - two parents and four children - who live in an apartment in City Heights.
Rudman recently co-hosted a fundraiser at the home of Michelle Alsari, another Solana Beach resident whose family has also adopted a Syrian refugee family. The adoptive families have helped the newcomers in a variety of ways over the past few months, from gathering furniture and other needed household items, to helping their children get vaccinations and register for school, to assisting them with library cards and memberships to a YMCA near their home.
“There’s a lot of things they need help with,” said Rudman.
Her adoptive family consists of the parents, Laila and Hanifi, who are both 40, and their four children, two boys and two girls. The children are now attending school, while the parents take English classes five nights a week.
“They’ve definitely made a lot of progress in the short time they’ve been here,” Rudman said, noting that the parents can communicate in rudimentary fashion in their new language. “They seem motivated to learn, that’s critical.”
The family came from an area near Aleppo in Syria, and moved several years ago to Turkey. They came to the United States last year, with a wave of refugees who ended up in San Diego County.
“They left because of the violence and the war,” she said, referring to the civil war that has ravaged Syria since 2011.
After helping them get basic furnishings for their apartment - when she first met them in January they had a table but no chairs - Rudman turned to other necessities, including trying to help the father, a trained welder, get a job.
According to Arzon, most of the Syrian families have been paired with American adoptive families, but a few local families are still needed. Now that the refugees’ basic household needs have been met, the priorities are helping them get such things as a driver’s license, a car and work.
“We’re trying to get them jobs. That’s the only way a refugee is not a refugee any more, then they won’t be dependent on welfare or cash aid to survive,” Arzon said.
Both Arzon and Rudman dismissed the concern expressed by some that allowing Syrian refugees into the United States poses a danger to local residents.
“What scares me more is an American citizen with a gun than a Syrian refugee who has gone through 18 months of vetting,” said Rudman. “They don’t just open the floodgates and let a bunch of people come in.”
“There’s no easy answer, but closing the door to Syrian refugees isn’t going to be the answer to our terrorism problem,” she said.
The extensive security clearance process for refugees involves numerous interviews, biometric scans, and other research into the applicants’ past, said Arzon.
“I feel those refugees are more vetted than you and I are,” said Arson. “The United States (government) knows a lot about who is coming here, they chose those families.”
Currently, there are about 1,000 Syrian refugees in San Diego County, representing about 200 families, said Arzon. Many of them arrived last year, through the auspices of nonprofit resettlement agencies such as Catholic Charities and Jewish Family Services. Another 1,000 were expected, but the additional refugees have not shown up, she said, perhaps due to changes instituted by the new administration in Washington.
Rudman is gratified that so many of her friends have stepped up to help the refugees, whether through donations of money, household goods or their time.
“I’m here to help them get on their feet, give them the tools they need to be contributing members of our society,” Rudman said. “That will make me feel like I was success, if they are successful and have a job and a car and are a functioning family in our society.”
Arzon said, “Let’s show them how beautiful America is and how beautiful the American people are. That’s been our mission. It’s been incredible.”
Those who want more information or to help the Syrian families can visit heart4refugees.org or facebook.com/heart4refugees.