Remember last fall, when Republicans whipped up a frenzy about Syrian refugees? Well, the refugees came anyway, so far without incident. Relief agencies say they were helped by an unexpected “backlash to the backlash” that hasn’t gotten near the attention it deserves.
Last fall, right after the Paris terror attacks, it felt like xenophobia sure might win for a round or two.
More than 30 governors declared their states to be “no Syrian refugee zones.” Here, much of the Republican party called on Gov. Jay Inslee to stop accepting any evacuees fleeing the war-torn country. They were backed by a protest of 250 people at the state Capitol in Olympia.
“Don’t bring a bunch of Muslims into the country,” said one man at the rally, holding a “Deport Jay Inslee” sign. “They want to kill us.”
The knee-jerk demonization wasn’t confined to protesters. One state lawmaker from Snoqualmie called Muslims “barbarians” and said taking in Muslim refugees was “absolute madness.” Another legislator, from Spokane, called for Inslee’s impeachment if he didn’t shut the state to Syrians.
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“It was a very concerning time,” says David Duea, head of Lutheran Community Services Northwest, one of the groups that works to resettle refugees here. “This work isn’t usually so hot-button. We didn’t know if the political landscape was about to totally change.”
I bring all this up now because on Monday it was announced that America has rather quietly, amid much screeching, already reached its goal of welcoming 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of September.
Even with all the hostile political rhetoric against them, the refugees have been placed in towns in 38 states, from deep-red Oklahoma to dark blues such as Rhode Island.
Texas, even though its governor sued to stop any settlement of Syrians there and another statewide official compared them to rattlesnakes, has nevertheless become home to 534 Syrian refugees since November.
In this state, we’ve resettled 115 people fleeing from the civil-war-wracked country. That may not sound like much, but it triples the number we’d taken in here since 2003. Overall, Washington has accepted 2,408 refugees from 24 countries through the first 10 months of the government’s fiscal year — ranking us seventh in the nation for total refugee resettlement (Texas is No. 1 with 5,402).
How did this happen? How did bringing in refugees just continue apace, without incident, even as it had become a national political lightning rod?
Resettlement folks here say two things. One, the federal government simply ignored the fearmongering governors. Two, there was a little-publicized “backlash to the backlash” that bubbled up from the most powerful spot of all: the bottom.
“The churches just came out of the woodwork to help,” Duea says. “People were very upset about the tenor of what was being said about the refugees, and they wanted to do something concrete to counteract it. They would come in here and say — ‘That’s not my voice.’ ”
The relief group International Rescue Committee quantified the reaction. They studied the refugee controversy on social media and found that all the Muslim-bashing had spawned a pro-refugee counter wave.
“Down on the ground, it turned into a very positive story that hasn’t gotten the media attention that all those negative stories did,” says Nicky Smith, director of International Rescue’s Seattle office. Her agency has settled 25 Syrians in South King County.
This could be a case study in how a national election can magnify issues that really aren’t that big a deal, fanning them into existential crises. As Duea notes, about the hardest and most time-consuming way possible for a terrorist to get into the country would be to pose as a refugee. Yet because terrorism and refugee resettlement were conflated for their own fearmongering purposes by national politicians — most egregiously by Donald Trump — it threw into doubt decades-old programs that are designed to help the very victims of international terrorism and war.
But the real story, the one that matters in the end, is that many of you didn’t give in to the xenophobic hype. You quietly did the exact opposite. It’s as good an omen as we’ve got as we head into the hyper-charged craziness of the fall elections.