As the United States prepares to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next fiscal year, two local Middle Eastern Christians are launching efforts to bring some of them to San Diego County.
Mark Arabo, a spokesman for the regionâ€™s Iraqi Christian Community and president of the Minority Humanitarian Foundation, and Sammer Zakhour, a San Diego attorney with roots in Syria, said they are hoping to provide safe haven to â€œa few hundredâ€ Syrian families â€” and to children in particular â€” who have fled their home country.
The two plan to open an orphanage in San Diego County for Syrian refugee children, who they say will face overwhelming obstacles as they assimilate to life in the U.S. after having witnessed devastating violence in the Middle East.
â€œWhatâ€™s going on is an atrocity. Itâ€™s beyond religion.â€¦ Itâ€™s more of a human issue,â€ Zakhour said. â€œThe people most at need are the children. Theyâ€™re going to be coming into a country without their parents.â€
A photo of a 3-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed ashore on a beach in Turkey last week sparked outrage around the world, prompting demands that the international community do more to aid the four million refugees who have fled Syria to neighboring countries.
â€œThe Middle East is in a state of perpetual volatility. Syria is the clearest example of what happens when our dysfunctionality in (Washington, D.C.) leads to crisis elsewhere.
We were unwilling to act from the beginning stages of this crisis, and now we see the product of our negligence,â€ Arabo said last week in an email.
Through the Minority Humanitarian Foundation, Arabo facilitates the safe passage of Iraqi Christians fleeing the Middle East into the United States.
â€œIt is our duty, our responsibility, and our moral imperative to assist those who have fled their homes due to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.â€
The pair said their immediate goal is to begin fundraising for the orphanage, adding that the project would likely be paid for by contributions from various Syrian and Chaldean donors. They also expect to receive federal funding.
Zakhour, a criminal defense attorney whose parents emigrated from Syria, said he has family members there who have been displaced because of the countryâ€™s civil war.
Recent discussions with Arabo about the crisis sparked a desire to help, he said.
Zakhour said Syrian refugees would adapt well to life in San Diego because of the regionâ€™s notable Chaldean population, which shares many similarities to Syrian culture. The countyâ€™s diverse multicultural population also makes it uniquely suited to serve as refuge, Arabo added.
There are no statistics available on the Syrian population in the county.
San Diego County took in 256 refugees in June and July, according to the latest statistics from the stateâ€™s Department of Social Services.
Experts say that while the added number of refugees that the United States will take in appears significant at first glance, the U.S. has been slow to react to Syriaâ€™s devastating crisis.
As of the end of July, the U.S. had resettled 120,043 refugees since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, according to Bill Frelick, director of the refugee program for the Human Rights Watch in New York City.
â€œIt means that the actual admissions of refugees has been painfully slow and in far lower numbers than address any concerns of neighboring countries to relieve the burden that they are feeling,â€ he said in August.
â€œWe are very pleased that the U.S. is increasing the number from what itâ€™s resettled thus far, but that has to be seen in the context that itâ€™s really done a poor job in responding to the greatest refugee crisis of our time.â€