A graph set up against the wall in the Nationalities Services Center (NSC) had towers of blue bars, varying in heights.
The bars represent U.S. refugee resettlement arrivals from fiscal year 1980 — where the ceiling was set to 200,000 — to today with the fiscal year 2019 projection. The annual ceiling is now set at 45,000. Projections indicate that number could change to just 25,000.
In response, NSC, HIAS Pennsylvania and Bethany Christian Services of Greater Delaware Valley joined together to hold a panel discussion and conference on Sept. 6 about the dangers a drop that low could present for these agencies and the refugees they serve.
The U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program is on “life support,” NSC executive director Margaret O’Sullivan said.
“We are here to call attention to the potential evisceration of a program that has served as a point of pride for this nation for 40 years,” she said. “The current administration has been dismantling the program with stealth and with precision.”
The number President Donald Trump set for the refugee admission ceiling is the lowest in U.S. history, she noted. As this fiscal year ends, she added, the U.S. will have only settled about 20,000 refugees.
The sign on the lectern read, “#Welcome75K,” a reference to the push to raise the ceiling to the once-average 75,000 refugees.
“All this is happening against the backdrop of the largest global refugee crisis in human history,” she said.
In the greater Philadelphia area alone, she said, agencies welcomed more than 2,000 refugees in the past four years.
Some former refugees who directly benefited from the program were on hand to warn about the dangers of dissolving it.
Sozi Tulante, Bdour Hussein and Gin Sum shared their stories of escaping oppressive countries in search of a better life.
Tulante was born in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo). Since coming to Philadelphia as a political refugee in 1983 when NSC helped resettle his family, he’s served as city solicitor for the City of Philadelphia and is now a lecturer and fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
Refugees are often regarded as the “other,” he said during his remarks.
Pointing to the graph behind him, he emphasized, “They may seem like numbers, but those are real people.”
Through an interpreter, Hussein shared her story of fleeing Syria with her four children and husband who became disabled and traumatized in the war, and made their way first to Jordan, where they lived in a deserted warehouse with little in the way of food and water, and ultimately to the United States.
She used three words to summarize their experience: War, struggle — and hope.
Sum was born in Burma and now works at HIAS PA, the agency that helped expedite his family reunification.
His father fled to the U.S. when Sum was 3, as he was a spiritual leader targeted by the military junta. Sum didn’t see his father for 17 years. Sum and his mother and sister fled to India and applied for refugee protection. When they made it to America, HIAS PA helped reunite the family in Philadelphia.
“I didn’t know the true meaning of refugee until I became one myself,” Sum said.
David S. Glosser, a neuropsychologist who volunteers with HIAS PA and gained name recognition for penning an essay condemning his nephew, Stephen Miller — senior adviser to Trump — and his anti-refugee remarks, shared the story of ancestors facing anti-Semitism and seeking refuge.
“What happens to people who have no place to run to is not a theoretical question to me,” he said.
When he mentioned his family receiving help from Hebrew Immigrant and Aid Society as it was called then, HIAS PA Executive Director Cathryn Miller-Wilson smiled.
“They’re not coming to destroy and destruct any more than Jews were coming to destroy and destruct post-World War II or in the early 20th century,” Miller-Wilson said of the notion that refugees are coming for nefarious purposes. “Those are the same things people said about Jews. Were they true? No. So why are they true now?”
Vetting process put in place post-9/11 work and protect us, she said. “These are not people who are here to destroy us, at all. They’re assets.”
Glosser shared some advice for those seeking to understand better, including looking to their own family histories.
“If they still have access to them, talk to the elders of their family. Find out what life was like for them and how they made the decision to leave,” he said. “And I invite them all to send an email and a letter to their relatives over in Europe. They will not get any responses, and they should think about that a little bit.”
And above all, he and Miller-Wilson stressed, reach out to elected officials and vote.