Our complicated feelings toward those ‘yearning to breathe free’

Congressman Rick Larsen’s audience was in full agreement Friday when he spoke about the meaning of the Statue of Liberty.

“It’s not just a great tourist attraction,” said Larsen, a Democrat who represents Washington’s 2nd District in the U.S. House. He recited a bit of the Emma Lazarus poem engraved on a plaque on the statue’s pedestal. Its most quoted lines are: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …”

Speaking at Everett Community College to a meeting of the state Refugee Advisory Council, Larsen acknowledged that even Lady Liberty’s eloquent message hasn’t been enough to allay fears since the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris. The nation’s case of nerves has only gotten worse since Wednesday’s shootings in San Bernardino.

A week after the Paris tragedy, the House passed a bill, with strict new requirements for the FBI and other national security agencies, that could effectively end the program allowing Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the United States. The Senate has yet to act on the measure.

Larsen, who strongly supports U.S. efforts to accept Syrian refugees fleeing violence and persecution, said at the meeting that “very few of my colleagues understand the process and the refugee experience.”

The congressman was to hear about that experience at a meeting in Lynnwood on Saturday with Hussein Ali and his family, refugees from Syria who relocated to Snohomish County.

Ali is among the very few Syrians who have come here as refugees. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of State, Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System, 25 refugees from Syria came to Washington from October 2014 through this September.

During that time, 2,921 refugees and those with Special Immigrant Visas came to Washington. Among those getting a Special Immigrant Visa are people who have worked with the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Van Dinh-Kuno, executive director of Refugee and Immigrant Services Northwest based at EvCC, said Friday that only one Syrian refugee family has come to Snohomish County over the past year, out of about 200 refugees who settled here.

The largest numbers of refugees settling in Washington this past year came from Iraq, Ukraine and Somalia.

On Nov. 25, after a number of governors expressed concern over Syrian refugees coming to their states, the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement announced its commitment to President Barack Obama’s plan to resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States in 2016. And Gov. Jay Inslee has cited Washington’s “proud tradition” of receiving refugees dating back to the Vietnam War-era.

“I feel very proud to be part of Washington state,” said Sarah Peterson, the state refugee coordinator with the Department of Social and Health Services. At Friday’s meeting, she said her office has had hundreds of calls on both sides of the issue, some expressing fear, others offering space in their homes.

The Refugee Advisory Council, organized by DSHS, holds public meetings four times a year around the state. Made up of 12 members plus four state officials, the group includes two people from Snohomish County: Narad Dahal of Lutheran Community Services Northwest and Ayouni Djouher of Refugee Immigrant Services Northwest are both based in Everett.

Dahal came here as a refugee from Bhutan, a Himalayan kingdom with a poor human rights record.

The meeting began with a short video, produced recently by the Department of Homeland Security, outlining the long process of refugee resettlement in the United States, beginning with application through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Applicants must show they are being driven from home by persecution or fear due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular group. They face a security screening more stringent than for any other group, including biometric identification, and interviews by the FBI.

Peterson and Gretchen Fleming of the Edmonds School District — where students speak 90 languages — said many refugees suffer a “triple-whammy of trauma.” There are the events that made them flee, time spent in refugee camps, and adjusting to a whole new world.

Larsen doesn’t dispute that terrorist attacks have caused real fears. “You have to recognize that you may not be concerned, but there are plenty of people who are concerned about Syrian refugees,” he told the group.

Dana Boales, a member of the advisory council from Tacoma, works with immigrants and refugees at Tacoma Community House. She doesn’t want to see fear win out.

“I’m an American,” she said. “We’re strong. I am not afraid of people who worked so hard to come here.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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