Experts tackle community concerns over refugee crisis

Experts tackle community concerns over refugee crisis

From left: Mark Hetfield, Michael Kenney, Aryeh Sherman and Josh Sayles

Photo by Toby Tabatchnick
From left: Mark Hetfield, Michael Kenney, Aryeh Sherman and Josh Sayles Photo by Toby Tabatchnick

Welcoming the stranger is a core Jewish value, began Josh Sayles, the director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council, at the commencement of a program held last week to address community concerns about the current refugee crisis.

Weighing that value alongside potential security threats was the task of the panel of three experts at the event, which was co-sponsored by the CRC, Jewish Family & Children’s Service, the Holocaust Center and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.

The panel included Aryeh Sherman, president and CEO of JF&CS, Mark Hetfield, CEO of HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) and terrorism specialist Michael Kenney, associate professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

Providing information about “the facts on the ground,” said Sayles, would help inform community members wrestling with the issue of whether, in the words of the sage Hillel, “we can be both for ourselves, and for others.”

Sayles reminded the 70 audience members convened at the JCC’s Levinson Hall, that throughout history, Jews also have been refugees — from Spain, Poland, Lithuania and Egypt. He also recalled the Jews on the fatal voyage of the S.S. St. Louis, fleeing the murderous Nazis of Europe in 1939, only to be turned away at the shores of Cuba and the United States and sent back to Germany to their deaths.

The American Jewish community has a long history of helping refugees fleeing from persecution, according to Hetfield, who explained the evolution of the 135-year-old HIAS from an organization “that helped refugees because they are Jewish to an organization that helps refugees because we are Jewish.”

HIAS is the only global Jewish institution, he said, that is dedicated entirely to helping refugees and works with a network of affiliates around the country. One of its partners is the JF&CS in Pittsburgh.

When HIAS was founded in 1881, its central mission was to assist Jews fleeing the Russian genocide.

From 1881 to 1921, the population of the United States grew a lot due to immigration, and this country was a welcoming place for Jews, said Hetfield. In 1921, however, the paradigm shifted, and national origin quotas were instated, along with stringent visa requirements, making it more difficult for those fleeing countries from across the pond to enter the United States.

In the 1930s, Hetfield said, Jews could not immigrate to the United States, or to Canada or to Australia for that matter, as those counties had erected similar barriers.

The landscape for refugees changed again as a result of the 1951 Refugee Convention of the U.N. Refugee Agency defining who are refugees, their rights and the legal obligations of states. The Convention, said Hetfield, arose from the ashes of the Holocaust.

Following World War II, HIAS provided assistance to Cuban Jews and Hungarian Jews. The organization helped Soviet Jews from 1970 through 2000.

“After that,” Hetfield said, “we underwent a transformation. There were no longer Jews in captivity, and Jews had the option to go to Israel. Now the vast majority of people we help are not Jewish, they are just refugees.”

Most American Jews did not know about the work of the HIAC until September 2015, when the image of the drowned Syrian refugee, Aylan Kurdi, age 3, hit the newspapers.

“That woke up our community to the Syrian refugee crisis,” Hetfield said, although the crisis itself began in 2011.

Hetfield described the intense and lengthy security precautions that Syrian refugees must undergo prior to admittance into the United States The process typically lasts 18 to 24 months, he said.

While many Jews are sympathetic to the Syrian refugees, Hetfield bemoaned the political pundits who incite fear and blame terror attacks, such as the one in Paris late last year, on refugees.

“No perpetrators were identified as a refugee, or as a Syrian refugee,” he said. “Still, 31 governors declared their states off-limits to Syrian, Muslim refugees.”

The refugee program is “the most secure immigration program in the United States,” he stressed. “Refugees are fleeing terror; they are not here to bring terror.”

Kenney, who said he collaborates with the Pittsburgh FBI office on terror, examined the available research linking terror attacks with refugee flows.

The Pitt professor cited a study by Michael Findley from the University of Texas, examining terrorism from 1969 to 2001, showing that “refugee flows do contribute to a slightly higher likelihood of terrorism in the host state,” Kenney said.

In the abstract to his 2013 paper, “Radicalism of the Hopeless: Refugee Flows and Transnational Terrorism,” (International Interactions) co-authored by Daniel Milton and Megan Spencer, Findley concludes that “refugee flows significantly increase the likelihood and counts of transnational terrorist attacks that occur in the host country, even when controlling for other variables.”

Factors contributing to transnational terrorism, according to the study, include poor conditions in refugee camps and poor treatment of refugees by the host states.

“What is critical,” said Kenney, noting that the scope of the research was worldwide and not confined to the United States, “is the location of resettlement of the refugees.

“Awful conditions can provide a breeding ground for violence,” he said. “It’s the poor conditions of refugee camps along with obstructions of the host countries that can lead to a small number of refugees to become radicalized.”

The results of the study, Kenney emphasized, “do not suggest that the refugee flow contributes to a higher likelihood of terrorism in the United States.”

Because the refugees here do not share a border with a war zone, and because the United States is “very selective” in which refugees it admits, terrorism by refugees in unlikely, he said.

“Are there isolated incidents?” Kenney asked. “Yes, but they are very isolated. The risk of Pittsburgh experiencing terrorism by Syrian refugees is exceptionally low. Theoretically, it could happen, but I’ll tell you the risk is low.”

Sherman took the podium to explain the work of JF&CS in resettling refugees in Pittsburgh. Of the 75,000 refugees admitted to the United States annually, about 200 are resettled by JF&CS in Pittsburgh. A few other local organizations work to resettle refugees as well.

The majority of the refugees resettled by JF&CS are ethnic Nepalese from Bhutan, while others are from the Dominican Republic or the Congo. Four Syrian families have been resettled in Pittsburgh by JF&CS.

JF&CS aids refugees by providing a furnished apartment, helping them find employment, teaching them skills such as how to turn on a light and use a shower and enrolling them in English as a second language classes.

Refugees, Sherman said, are an essential component to Pittsburgh’s diversity, which is imperative to attracting “a viable work force.”

The risk to the community of terrorism posed by refugees, suggested Sherman, is outweighed by the benefits of welcoming those fleeing persecution and who are struggling.

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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