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Many Question Why The U.S. Isn't Taking In More Syrian Refugees


Let's examine a few numbers that help define the human cost of Syria's war.


Syria's population is about 23 million - or at least it was before the war. Today, just over half have been forced from their homes. Some are refugees within their country, and 4.1 million people have left it.

MONTAGNE: Four-point-one million people outside their country, and of those millions, roughly 1,500 have found refuge in the United States. Though the U.S. has donated a lot of money, it's let in just a tiny fraction of the refugees absorbed by Turkey and nations across Europe. Now there's pressure to change that. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Syrian-American Bilal Kanawati runs an IT business in North Carolina and tried to help his cousin, another computer expert, escape from Damascus. He was ready to sponsor visas for his cousin's family to come to the U.S., making clear they would not be a burden on the U.S. government.

BILAL KANAWATI: And we sent the paper. We paid all the fees. And we just got denials on all of them.

KELEMEN: And he says his cousin's life just keeps getting worse. The man's house was destroyed by a Syrian airstrike. His 15-year-old daughter fell ill and died because they couldn't reach a hospital, and his son is about to be drafted.

KANAWATI: The bottom line, we really worry about his kids going to have to - not by choice - have to join the Syrian army.

KELEMEN: Kanawati isn't alone. He says his friend, another Syrian-American, was trying to help his brother get out of an area that's often hit by Syrian barrel bombs.

KANAWATI: Last week, one of these barrel, they throw on civilian area. It came and hit him near his shop, and he died.

KELEMEN: He says after spending $6,000 trying unsuccessfully to get his cousin's family to the U.S., he's giving up hope of helping any other relatives. Khalilah Sabra, who's with the Muslim American Society Immigrant Justice Center in Raleigh, N.C., says U.S. immigration authorities should be making the situations a priority.

KHALILAH SABRA: They're not making this process easier. They're making it difficult.

KELEMEN: She's been trying to help a Syrian couple get reunited with two of their children, who they had to leave behind in Turkey because they couldn't get visas for everyone when they fled early in the conflict.

SABRA: And there are lots of stories like this, lots of stories of broken families.

KELEMEN: Syrian-American communities, from California to Michigan, are ready to support refugees from their troubled homeland, says Anna Greene of the International Rescue Committee, an organization that helps to resettle refugees.

ANNA GREENE: This is a community that's ready and able to help this population. But we also have volunteers across the country that work with IRC, with all nationalities of refugees that we resettle, who are waiting for this population and saying, we're ready, when is the population going to arrive? We're ready to help them.

KELEMEN: The U.S. resettles about 70,000 refugees from all over the world each year. When it comes to Syrians, the State Department says the U.S. has taken in about 1,500 since the start of the conflict and could take in 8,000 in the next year. The U.N. is trying to find homes for 130,000 of the most vulnerable refugees to ease the burden on countries in the area. And as Anna Greene points out, the U.S. usually takes in half the global demands.

GREENE: So that means 65,000. That's our share of the burden if we really want to make a difference in saving the most vulnerable and helping these countries cope.

KELEMEN: So far, the U.N. has referred 15,000 cases to the U.S. They tend to be the most desperate, Greene explains. And she says what's worse is that aid agencies don't have the money they need to help these people either in Syria or in camps in neighboring countries.

GREENE: We have individuals - Syrian refugees - who may have been in Lebanon now three or four years. They've completely exhausted their savings. And with only 37 percent funding for the refugee effort, they're getting food rations cut. They're having difficulties getting assistance to be able to go to the hospital.

KELEMEN: And that's one reason she says Syrians are making those dangerous journeys to Europe. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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