by Aaron Tovo, Area Coordinator, Minnesota, Amnesty International USA
You probably are aware the world has a huge refugee crisis. There are some 21 million refugees in the world right now — the most since World War II. The Syrian war alone has produced 5 million of them since 2011 and neighboring countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq host almost all of them. The UN estimates that about 500,000 need to be resettled out of the region due to heightened vulnerability of further harm. Thousands have been resettled in Europe and Canada, but the need is much greater. The U.S. must do its part, but it has only admitted about 15,000 Syrian refugees since 2011. In 2016, the U.S. admitted more than 12,500, showing that the U.S. can do more if it wants.
Now, with Donald Trump taking office, the route to the U.S. doing more is for the will of the people to be heard. That’s where Amnesty activists come in.
I’m the coordinator of Minnesota’s Twin Cities AI group, Group 37. We joined AI USA’s new #IWelcome campaign and, along with other AI groups across the country, decided to work on getting our city councils to pass a resolution supporting the resettlement of Syrian refugees here. We used the draft resolution in the #IWelcome Refugee Toolkit and re-shaped it reflect local needs. Members of our group fanned out and recruited a broad coalition of organizations such as the International Institute of Minnesota, Arrive Ministries, United Nations Association of MN, The American Refugee Committee, The Minnesota Council of Churches, and The Center for Victims of Torture. Working with staff, Executive Directors, and board members of each organization, we found resolution language that worked for everyone and got their buy-in. Then AIUSA group members fanned out again, this time to recruit their city council members in both Minneapolis and St Paul to support the resolutions.
All of us working, together, got it done. The city councils of both Minneapolis and St. Paul passed our #IWelcome resolutions. One of the refugee organizations told us that a resolution like this is meaningful not only to Syrian refugees, but also to other refugees and immigrants. When our cities’ leaders pass a resolution like this it shows that they support some of the most vulnerable people in our community, which helps those people feel safer.
Minnesota has a small Syrian population and not a lot of Syrians resettle in Minnesota. Although the resolution is largely symbolic in that regard, this symbol is still very important. The #IWelcome resolutions show that people on the ground, in cities and towns across the country, welcome refugees. And they are particularly effective because, along with similar efforts around the country, they reach our local leaders directly and make them think about the issue. In the midst of the anti-immigrant statements made by the incoming president, they send a message that we have local leaders who are expressing solidarity with refugees. Our elected officials can’t ignore that, which is really important when state legislators and Congress people try to limit resettlement of Syrian refugees.
This kind of visible support is especially important as Trump takes office on the heels of a campaign full of bigotry against refugees, immigrants, Muslims, and people of color. When we come together to welcome refugees, we make our communities feel safer for refugees and we defeat hateful rhetoric.