By Kiki Spiezio
Despite recent political polarization around the issue of Syrian refugee resettlement, a local refugee working group has been preparing for months to resettle refugees in Lexington.
Jerry Nay is the coordinator of the refugee working group, based out of the R. E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church. He is bringing together 11 area churches to coordinate efforts and mobilize individuals in order to support refugees in this community.
The next meeting of the refugee working group will be Wednesday, Dec. 16 at 5:15 p.m. in the parish hall of R.E. Lee Church. Updates on the local resettlement efforts will be presented and people interested in helping out can sign up to assist.
Since the Paris attacks on Nov. 13 and the San Bernardino shooting on Dec. 2, political rhetoric about helping refugees has shifted toward opposition stemming from a growing fear that Mideast terrorists would be able to sneak into the United States disguised as refugees.
But this isn’t deterring the local group. “This is above politics,” Nay said. “It’s a humanitarian thing.”
Nay said he doesn’t know if refugees will come in a few months or in a year, or if the refugees will even be from Syria. That is up to Church World Services, an international organization with headquarters in Harrisonburg.
Jim Hershberger, the Director of the Immigration and Refugee Program at Church World Services’ office in Harrisonburg, said in an email, “I am not sure what will happen as our arrivals are a little slow now.” He also said that right now his office is “resettling mostly Iraqis, both Arabs and Kurds, some Eritreans, Congolese, Cubans and a very few Afghans.”
In any case, the Refugee Working Group is making plans now so that Lexington is ready.
“The community is hugely in support of what we’re trying to do,” Nay said. “People are concerned about the immediate short-term, but we’re concerned with the longer term.”
Right now, the Working Group is hoping to take three families – “the minimum number to start a community,” Nay said. “It would be nice if they had a mother, and a father, and children.” As for transportation, housing, clothing and food, Nay has thought of just about everything.
He said that “hundreds” have come forward wanting to help. Because of this, Nay remains unconcerned with critics or the question of where money and resources will come from.
“Our whole approach, the way we’ll solve all our problems, is by being positive,” he said. Nay likened it to the popular tune from World War II: “Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.” He said he remembers only one person who had anything even slightly negative to say about his initiatives.
“My philosophy on money is if the program is right, the money will be there,” Nay explained. “If the need is right and properly presented, then people will rally.”
Local resident Marcy Orr, a member of the R. E. Lee Episcopal Church, has already stepped forward to offer transportation to Lynchburg, where one of the closest mosques is located. “We can’t prejudge,” Orr said. “We can’t say we only want Christians – that’s not our job. Our job is hospitality.”
As for the refugees who settle here, Orr said the biggest challenge would be finding a community. “We need to surround them with enough folks who will support them, if they do experience hostility.”
In a televised Oval Office address on terrorism Sunday, President Obama said it was important not to turn against one another by letting the war on terrorism be a war between America and Islam.
In response, presidential candidate Donald Trump announced on Monday that he would ban all Muslims from entering the country. On Tuesday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), another presidential hopeful, introduced a bill that would allow governors to reject refugees – appeasing the 31 governors who have said they do not want refugees in their states.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, has already said he would block any proposed legislation that would prevent Syrian refuges from coming to Virginia.
At this time, no refugees are set to come to Virginia in the immediate future – and the refugees who do come to Lexington will have been waiting for two years or more.
“A lot of people don’t realize, not only do these people [refugees] go through a hard process to get in – it’s the hardest way for a terrorist to come in – but they take on a big financial burden,” said J. Patrick Rhamey, a Virginia Military Institute international studies professor. “It’s not a bunch of handouts.”
Rhamey, also a city councilman, wrote a statement last month that all members of the City Council signed in support of welcoming refugees to Lexington. He said it “accurately portrayed the city’s predominant view,” and released it in efforts to distance Lexington from Roanoke after that city’s mayor pointed to Japanese internment camps in the United States during World War II as a good precedent for restricting refugees.
At the meeting of the Refugee Working Group at the church next Wednesday, a group of Washington and Lee professors, including Joel Blecher, Seth Cantey, and Mohamed Kamara, will discuss various aspects of Middle Eastern culture.
Blecher, a religion professor, is expecting to speak about Islam. “These issues of religion and religious identity might not be important at all,” he said. “But it’s possible that these fundamental issues could be really important. We don’t know.”
He said he is optimistic about the Lexington community welcoming refugees, but that there is still some latent xenophobia that exists.
As awareness of the Refugee Working Group spreads, Nay and his supporters expect their efforts to gain momentum.
“This is how America grows,” Orr said. “This is what we do. And we’re the richer for it.”