News from the Week of July 11, 2016

This week the fight for our Afghan allies continues in Congress. In a bipartisan effort led by Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ), the Senate voted to instruct the conference committee on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to take up Senator Shaheen’s provision for the extension of the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program. The committee will conference its version of the NDAA against the House version, which contains no SIV provision, with the recommended extension in the fall.

In addition to McCain and Shaheen’s efforts, support for the Afghan SIV program was offered  by another bipartisan pair: Senate State, Foreign Operations Appropriation Subcommittee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-VT). Their version of the legislation, which includes an extension of the SIV program along with an additional 4,500 visas, will also go to conference in the fall.

As the United States moves closer to its goal of resettling ten thousand Syrian Refugees this year, individual cities are experiencing their own success stories--and their own troubles. Local government leaders in Rutland, Vermont voted last week to send a letter to the U.S. State Department, stating they lack sufficient information to address concerns regarding the resettlement program planned by the city’s mayor. Others point out that the plan has broad support from Vermont’s governor, the local chamber of commerce, and many Rutland citizens.

Despite similar protests from governors in Maryland and Virginia, a large number of refugees are being resettled in those states. As of last month, 115 Syrian refugees now call Maryland home, as do 87 in Virginia. The Executive Director of the International Rescue Committee’s Baltimore branch was quoted as saying, “We have had hundreds and hundreds of phone calls from everyday citizens of Maryland offering their support.”

As the debate over providing refuge for those fleeing violence and persecution continues, others are striving to assist refugees once they have been resettled here. Late last month, President Obama issued a call to action, enlisting the help of corporations such as Airbnb, Chobani, Google, JPMorgan Chase, LinkedIn, and Microsoft to help refugees in the United States achieve financial stability and employment. Chobani, notably, is an exemplar: one third of the yogurt company’s New York workforce is made up by refugees.

The contributions of smaller innovators have been just as impressive. The BBC reports that the University of the People, a California education nonprofit, is offering fully-accredited online degree programs to refugees across the world. The organization has plans to allow students who complete two years of their program to transfer to top American universities like UC-Berkeley. “We open the gates to higher education,” said the program’s founder. “We are an alternative for those who have no other alternative—survivors of the genocide in Rwanda, refugees from Syria, the earthquake in Haiti.” For Syrian refugees, the program is offered at no cost.

Finally, we’ve been following BBC2’s captivating new documentary, “Exodus”. Filmed by refugees, the program follows the journeys of a young Syrian girl and an English teacher from Damascus as they brave the Mediterranean in search of refuge in Greece. The three-part series gives good insight into how refugees confront grave perils while fleeing their home countries. “Nothing is scary. In Syria, the bombs were dropping on us,” says one refugee while crossing the sea on a small, leaking boat. “At least in the grave we can rest.”

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