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Keeping our doors open to Syrians

Syrian refugees in Kilis, southern Turkey
Syrian refugees in Kilis, southern Turkey Photo: IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation / IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation via Flickr CC

Policy Impact Coordinator Kathryn Johnson reflects on her experience meeting Syrian refugees in Turkey and on visiting a US Refugee Support Center there. - Lucy

Last month, as I sat in a bus station in Bursa, Turkey across the Marmara Sea from Istanbul, waiting for the sun to rise so I could make my way onward, I chatted with a young Syrian man named Halil tending one of the many kabob stands in the bus station. By chatting, I mean taking turns speaking into a translation app on his phone, as I speak no Arabic and he spoke no English. Despite that difficulty, he explained that he had fled violence in Syria and was in Turkey waiting out the conflict. He also told me about his hopes to return to his studies in education and showed me pictures of his baby sister who he hadn’t seen since coming to Turkey two years ago. When I asked if he was trying to migrate on to somewhere else---the US, Europe, Canada---he said no. He just wished he could go home.  

Throughout my travels in Turkey, I encountered Syrians, which is no surprise considering that 2.1 million Syrians are in Turkey as refugees, displaced from their homeland by civil war. I encountered many on the streets, begging or selling trinkets, and many more in low wage jobs like Halil.  

Influx of Syrian refugees into Turkey by European Commission DG ECHO

At the end of my trip, I had the opportunity to tour the US’s Refugee Support Center (RSC) in Istanbul, where Syrian and other refugee applicants are screened to come to the US. According to my guide, Halil’s feelings are shared by many of his country men and women. Many Syrians, she explained, even after they’re referred to the US by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), aren’t sure that they want to go. After 4 years of war, many still want to stay close with the hope of returning to their homeland after the conflict ends.  

But there are thousands of others who are anxious to move on, to find what’s called a “durable solution” for themselves and their families.  

When Syrians or others are referred to the US to be screened for refugee resettlement, they’ve already been screened by the UNHCR and in the case of Syrians in Turkey, by the Turkish government as well. Turkey calls the Syrians guests, emphasizing that they’re welcomed, but temporarily, and has called on the rest of the world to do more. 

As we walked through the RSC, a pleasant but business-like office building that’s secure but not un-welcoming, my guide described the screening process they carry out. First, applicants go through a pre-screening interview to gather information on their case and prepare their application. I watched families as they filtered through the metal detectors and into the waiting areas where the atmosphere was serious as the applicants sat nervously hushing fidgeting children. Many had traveled across Turkey for their appointments with the heavy weight of their future on their shoulders.  

After the pre-screening, an interview is scheduled with a refugee officer who will determine whether the applicant (or applicants if it’s a family applying together) meet the requirements to be accepted as a refugee under US law. The primary question is whether they are fleeing persecution based on a small set of characteristics, but the officer also has to make sure that they shouldn’t be excluded because they pose a risk to the US or have provided material support to groups the US has designated as terrorists.  

Influx of Syrian Kurdish refugees into Turkey by European DG ECHO

Whether or not they’re a risk to the US is a question that is considered through several layers of security screening and background checks by various security agencies, not just the refugee officer. It is much of the reason that just the US portion of the screening process takes on average a year and a half to two years. Before that process even begins, many refugees have already been outside of their country for years or even decades awaiting a permanent solution. 

If an applicant passes all of these checks, then they can begin the preparation for the trip to the US. Part of this process is a cultural orientation, which is also carried out at the RSC. The classrooms where it’s provided looked like many grade school classrooms I’ve seen, with bright, upbeat signs and photos everywhere of smiling faces. And yet, my guide explained, much of the orientation is designed to temper the applicants’ expectations, explaining that they will be housed in modest, low-income housing and are expected to quickly find work to support themselves.  

When a resettlement location is chosen for them, they can finally travel to the US, provided they agree to pay back the travel costs, and begin their new life here.   

As I had chatted with Halil, he insisted on buying me traditional Turkish "chay" tea and fresh rolls, and more crucially helped me connect to the internet so I could figure out how to get where I was going. Experiencing this hospitality from him made it all the more painful to read about the fear and hate spewed by so many Americans, including our elected officials, after the attacks in Paris. In addition, being in a country that had accepted, albeit temporarily, literally millions of displaced Syrians, I was saddened to see the swift and opportunistic moves to halt the resettlement of the paltry numbers that the US has committed to.  

To date, the US has accepted around 2,500 Syrian refugees since the beginning of the conflict there, that’s out of 4 million Syrians displaced outside of Syria. We’ve agreed to take 10,000 more. However, recent moves in Congress could block that resettlement. A few weeks ago, the House passed HR 4038 which would add layers of scrutiny to Iraqi and Syrian refugee applications that experts say aren’t just challenging but probably impossible to comply with. It would effectively halt these applications from moving forward and block genuine, qualified refugees fleeing violence and instability from finding refuge in the US.  

Syrian refugees in Capadocia, Turkey by Fablo Sola Penna via Flickr CC

Fortunately, after national outcry, the Senate hasn’t brought this bill up for a vote. However, there is a risk that it could be included in a spending bill that must pass in order to keep the government running.  

What I saw in Turkey was a country taking in millions of its neighbors fleeing violence and instability. I saw a Refugee Support Center efficiently and thoroughly processing applicants and preparing refugees for a permanent resettlement. I saw refugee officers diligently listening to applicants and sorting through who best fits the requirements of US refugee law. I saw Syrians and others hanging in limbo waiting to either move on to a new life or return home when the bombs and firefights finally stop.  

What I see in the US is millions of people ready to accept refugees into this country and into their communities, recognizing our responsibility as a nation. I’ve heard from our partners who resettle refugees that they’ve received an overwhelming number of calls from people wanting to help. But what I also see here in Washington D.C. is our elected officials threatening to bow to fear and hysteria, shirk our international responsibilities, and turn our backs on victims of persecution who we can help protect.  

I hope compassion wins out over fear and we keep our doors open to Syrians. Fortunately, I don’t have to just sit back and hope. Instead I can join the chorus of voices calling on Congress to not pass anti-refugee legislation and especially to not attach such provisions onto legislation necessary to keep the government open.  

Will you join me in contacting your representatives and ask them to make sure legislation like this doesn't pass? You can email them here or call them at (202) 224-3121. 

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About the Author

Eli Johnson served as the Policy Advocacy Coordinator with AFSC's Office for Public Policy and Advocacy. Before joining AFSC, they were a Field Organizer for Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch where they educated and mobilized constituents against the Trans Pacific Partnership.

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