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'Who is my neighbor?'

The world’s worst refugee crisis since World War II raises challenges about balancing security concerns and spiritual care for strangers in need

SPARTANBURG, S.C.—In a simple apartment in Spartanburg, S.C., Ahmed brews a pot of hot tea and a plan for a new life. At his donated kitchen table in this small southern town, Ahmed is nearly 6,000 miles from his ancient homeland of Iraq.

It’s not a journey he wanted to take.

Ahmed (a pseudonym to protect his identity) recently arrived here as a refugee of his war-torn nation. For security reasons, he doesn’t publicly discuss the details of his departure, but his refugee status confirms a grim reality: Ahmed fled for his life.

He’s one of thousands of Iraqi refugees to arrive in the United States over the last decade, as the American war in Iraq bled into the brutal rise of the Islamic State. Millions have fled the country. A small percentage enter the United States as refugees.

In neighboring Syria, the exodus is breathtaking.

More than 4 million Syrians have fled that country’s civil war in the last four years. By late September, nearly half a million migrants from Syria, Iraq, and other nations had entered Europe this year.

European leaders grappled with how to care for a massive influx of foreign populations seeking safety or other relief, as the calamity mushroomed into the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War II.

Images of misery abounded, but on Sept. 2, a single photo of a 3-year-old boy galvanized world leaders: Aylan Kurdi’s small body had washed up on a Turkish beach after his family fled Syria. 

A few weeks later, the Obama administration announced it would allow 10,000 Syrian refugees into the United States next year. Since 2012, the United States has taken in less than 1,900.

The decision drew swift scrutiny.

Some Republican lawmakers raised legitimate questions about security: How would U.S. officials ensure terrorists didn’t pose as refugees to enter the country? How would they conduct security screenings for those who fled chaotic lands without proper documents?

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, went further: He said he would stop the plan for allowing thousands more Syrian refugees “immediately” if he became president. Rep. Brian Babin, R-Texas, introduced a bill to stop all refugee resettlement across the country, pending another assessment of the program’s cost and security. (The bill has 22 co-sponsors, but Babin says it needs “far more” to gain traction.)

The discussion is likely to continue, and it highlights an ongoing tension between compassion and security, particularly for Christians eager to help the most vulnerable, while guarding against harm. In a world brimming with sojourners, what’s the wisest way to help? 

While politicians debated policy, refugees like Ahmed worked hard to build new lives from scratch. Ahmed arrived in the United States with few possessions, but he brings out a small, framed map of Iraq when he talks about the homeland he misses.

These days, he’s hesitant to mention his homeland to most strangers. Ahmed worries about how Americans perceive Arabs, and he knows about the controversy brewing over refugees.

Indeed, the national controversy finds local expression here in Spartanburg, where a group of citizens and lawmakers objected to the opening of a local branch of World Relief—an evangelical aid agency that began resettling a few dozen refugees in Spartanburg earlier this year. (World Relief is one of nine nongovernmental organizations the U.S. government contracts to help settle refugees in local communities.)

In April, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who represents the district, asked Secretary of State John Kerry to halt plans to settle refugees in Spartanburg until the State Department answered a series of questions about the program. (The department offered answers, but Gowdy’s office says the congressman still wants more details.) 

At a gathering in a local school gym near Spartanburg in September, some 200 people discussed their concerns about refugees and immigration. The New York Times reported a local businessman told the group that refugees “plan to change the way of American life.” Some audience members asked if they could send refugees back.

But while some locals objected, many were open. Jason Lee, a Southern Baptist pastor and director of the local World Relief office, said more than 50 churches have signed up to help refugees settle in the area. At the moment, Lee says, he has more church teams than refugees.

He’s received some negative calls at the office (including one message complaining about illegal immigrants), but when the refugee crisis surged in September, he said, he received other calls too: local residents offering to host refugee families.

For now, World Relief hasn’t settled any Syrian refugees in the area, and doesn’t plan on it next year. The organization has settled only a few Syrians nationwide. Most of the local agency’s 56 refugees have come from Burma or the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). (Burma suffers from political violence and persecution of Christians, and the DRC is embroiled in one of the world’s deadliest civil wars in half a century.)

Recent arrivals in Spartanburg include a Burmese pastor who fled violence with his family and now works long hours at a local restaurant six days a week.

There’s a young Congolese woman who was separated from her parents during the war and lived in a refugee camp for 14 years. Heather Lowery, a church volunteer assisting her, says the young Christian woman is working hard at a manual job. Her goal is to pay back her travel loan to the U.S. government and go to college.

And then there’s Ahmed. He’s one of a few Iraqis settled in the area by World Relief so far. He’s also working, and took the first job he could get at a local warehouse. “It’s not my dream job,” he says. “But if it feeds me and pays my bills, it’s a great job.”

He’s thankful for World Relief volunteers helping him navigate logistics, but he’s particularly thankful for their friendship. When a World Relief caseworker picked him up at the airport when he arrived in the United States, his apartment wasn’t yet ready. “She took me into her home and treated me like a son,” he says quietly of the woman and her family. “How good is that?”

Nearly 3 million refugees have come into the United States since 1979. During that year, the United States admitted more than 110,000 Vietnamese refugees. The next year, U.S. officials received another 207,000 refugees.

During the last fiscal year, U.S. officials admitted about 70,000 refugees—less than one half of 1 percent of the total population of refugees in the world. About 2 percent of those refugees were from Syria.

Legally, a refugee is a person who can’t return to his homeland because of a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

Typically, the United Nations refers refugee applicants to the U.S. government for consideration. The Department of Homeland Security and State Department conduct security screenings and in-person interviews, usually over a period of at least several months.

When it comes to security, the State Department points out that the vast majority of refugees who have arrived in the United States since 1980 have settled peacefully. But department officials acknowledge security concerns and say they are working to improve the screening process.

In October, FBI Director James Comey told the Senate Homeland Security Committee that “gaps” remain in the agency’s ability to screen Syrian refugees. “There is risk associated of bringing anybody in from the outside, but specifically from a conflict zone like that,” said Comey. “There is no such thing as a no-risk enterprise and there are deficits that we face.”

Former Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va.—now working with the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative in Virginia—says such deficits are a legitimate cause for concern, and that the FBI must be vigilant.

But Wolf also says one of the most important ways for the United States to help refugees in the Middle East is to confront aggressively the source of the problem in places like Iraq and Syria, with options like no-fly zones and increased intelligence gathering.

In the meantime, he says, it’s important to help refugees fleeing extreme violence, including entire Christian and Yazidi communities. During his trip to Iraq in January, Wolf says, many displaced citizens pleaded with the U.S. government: “Help us stay. But if you’re not going to help us stay, help us go.”

When it comes to refugees going to Spartanburg, local churches are on the front lines of helping them find a safe home. World Relief’s Spartanburg office originated from a group of Southern Baptist churches talking with the organization about how they could help refugees fleeing crisis zones all over the world.

In his letter to the State Department, Rep. Gowdy asked which churches in Spartanburg had expressed interest in a refugee program. As it turns out, Gowdy’s own church is on the list.

At a recent prayer meeting at First Baptist Church in downtown Spartanburg, missionaries gathered for a missions conference and prayed in the language of the country where they work. Between quiet hymns and Scripture readings, the high-ceiling sanctuary filled with prayers spoken in Spanish, Russian, Arabic, and dialects from Africa and Asia.

After the service, missions pastor Steve Wise said the congregation—where Gowdy is a member—had been involved with discussions about World Relief from the beginning. “When people come here truly seeking refuge, helping them seems so very Christian in its nature.”

Wise says Gowdy’s security concerns are valid, but adds, “Our concerns are also spiritual. … We feel like it’s worth whatever it takes to share Jesus with everyone who comes into the country.”

In an email statement, Gowdy said his office doesn’t make decisions on whether refugees should come to Spartanburg, but that he simply wanted more information on the process. He added that he wished he had more information on the front end rather than after he learned refugees would be arriving.

Matthew Soerens, World Relief’s U.S. training specialist, says a representative from Gowdy’s office attended an informational meeting World Relief conducted earlier this year. Still, it’s clear that open communication is important for the refugees and the communities that might receive them.

Soerens also says World Relief doesn’t dismiss security concerns, but he believes the security risk is low. He notes most refugees are fleeing terrorism themselves. He also adds that for Christians: “I think we have a theological problem if the only question we’re asking is: ‘Are we safe?’ I think we also have to ask: ‘Who is my neighbor?’”

Back in his Spartanburg apartment, Ahmed sits in a living room modestly furnished by donations from local volunteers. He misses his homeland, but says he’s eager to learn how best to adjust to life in America. He talks about his 10-year plan for studies and work. He’s learning more about the area, but is cooking most meals at home in this Southern town of 37,000 people known for barbecue, not Middle Eastern cuisine.

He’s finding his closest neighbors aren’t the ones who live next door, but the Christians who have reached out to him through local churches, particularly the family he met when he first arrived: “They are my family now.”

Ahmed, who comes from a Muslim background, is attending church each Sunday and says he’s drawn to the teaching he’s hearing. He finds he wants to return each week, and that he wants to learn more. He’s found a small group he enjoys.

For now, Ahmed says, much of what he’s learned about Christianity comes from how he’s seen Christians receive him when he arrived as a stranger: “I think you learn the most about a person’s faith by what he does.”

—with reporting by Rob Holmes

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Ninety-year-old Bakhtavar Nazary, a migrant from Bamiyan, Afghanistan, warms herself by a fire at the Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos.

Darko Bandic/ap

Migrants move through fields after crossing from Croatia, in Rigonce, Slovenia.

Refugees, immigrants, and local students at an ESL class in Spartanburg, S.C.

Mike Belleme/The New York Times/redux

Mike Belleme/The New York Times/redux

Greensboro, NC: Craig Ruttle/Redux • Jersey City, N.J.: Julio Cortez/ap

Refugees from Congo, Iraq, and South Sudan walk to the library in Greensboro, N.C. (top); Syrian refugee Hussam Alroustom with his wife and daughter, Suha and Maaesa, in their apartment in Jersey City, N.J.

An informational meeting about refugees being placed in upstate South Carolina at Byrnes High School in Duncan, S.C.

‘I think we have a theological problem if the only question we’re asking is: “Are we safe?”’

Matt Soerens,

World Relief’s 

U.S. training specialist

‘There is risk associated of bringing anybody in from the outside, but specifically from a conflict zone like [Syria].’

 FBI Director 

 James Comey

U.S. REFUGEE ADMISSIONS: TOP FIVE COUNTRIES OF ORIGIN 

IN 2015

Burma: 18,886

Iraq: 12,676

Somalia: 8,858

DRC: 7,876 

Bhutan: 5,775

Source: United Nations High Commission for Refugees & the U.S. State Department

Displaced peoples 

59.5 million 

1 Current number of persons worldwide forcibly displaced from their homes by wars, conflicts, or persecution. Figure includes those who have fled their country and those who have relocated within their home country.

19.5 million

1 Number of displaced persons considered refugees who face danger or persecution if they return to their home country. 

50%

1 Percentage of refugees who are children.

70,000

1 Number of refugees admitted to the U.S. in 2014.TOP THREE REFUGEE-PRODUCING NATIONS 

IN 2014 

Syria 

3.8 million

Afghanistan

2.59 million 

Somalia

1.1 million

Source: United Nations High Commission for Refugees

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the political beat and other topics as national editor for WORLD Magazine. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.