News and analysis
November 25, 2015

As Lawmakers Balk at Syrian Refugees, Nonprofits Get Support to Aid Those Who Fled

Samuel Corum, Anadolu Agency, Getty Images

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan discusses a bill to halt the influx of Syrian refugees. Nonprofits are pushing back against the proposed legislation.

As families across the country gather on Thursday to devour turkey, a nonprofit in Kentucky will be helping Syrian and other refugees get a different celebratory main course: halal lamb.

At the Thanksgiving meal at Louisville restaurant El Camino, Kentucky Refugee Ministries will demonstrate how charities and donors are pushing back against some U.S. officials’ attempts to halt the flow of Syrian refugees into the country. Over the past 10 days, 31 governors have opposed allowing them to settle in their states, citing national-security concerns.

But the politicized climate has not stopped nonprofits from helping Syrians acclimate to the United States. Refugee Council USA, a coalition of nonprofits, has condemned the governors’ actions and called on members and the public to support Syrians in need. Such vocal support for the Syrians may be one reason Kentucky Refugee Ministries has received an "unprecedented" number of donations in the past week and a half, reports John Koehlinger, its executive director.

"A lot of people who were appalled at the disgraceful scapegoating of Syrian refugees, they found us as someone to whom they could express their support," he said. "It’s a dark time, but it’s also been one that’s galvanized our supporters and attracted new supporters."

Federal Aid

The federal government provides most of the funding for refugee resettlement in the United States. It funnels grant money through nine approved nonprofit organizations, which work with smaller charities across the country that provide direct services to families fleeing violence. This system frees most resettlement nonprofits from depending heavily on individual donors, and many, like International Rescue Committee, are not raising money specifically to support Syrians coming into the country.

But some other charities, for whom refugee assistance is only part of their work, are calling for donations. Zaman International, a Dearborn, Mich., nonprofit that supports marginalized women and children, has raised $8,400 as well as donated products for the "essential boxes" of household goods it is assembling for Syrian refugees moving into the community. These kits, which include things like dishware, baby bottles, and curtains, are for families who arrive with nothing.

Zaman International is part of a coalition of 20 Michigan nonprofits that are working directly with the governor’s office to provide services to incoming Syrian refugees. The coalition’s work has been supported in part by Michigan’s large Syrian population, which objects to allegations that refugees could pose a threat, said Najah Bazzy, the group’s executive director and founder.

"They are very strongly putting their foot forward saying it’s not fair to isolate these people in the refugee crisis," she said.

Record Donations and Hostility

Kentucky Refugee Ministries has not tried to raise money to aid incoming Syrians. But newspaper references to the nonprofit’s work with the refugees have spurred people to donate, Mr. Koehlinger said.

The charity helped a reporter at The Courier-Journal of Louisville arrange a trip to a refugee camp in Jordan, where he reported on a Syrian family preparing to resettle in Louisville. His story, which appeared on the front page on October 1, suggested readers help similar families by donating to Kentucky Refugee Ministries.

"More affluent people, older people, sometimes people in positions of responsibility, are still looking at the daily newspaper," Mr. Koehlinger said. "When we have a story that appears in The Courier-Journal, they open their checkbooks."

Increased attention has had its downsides: Mr. Koehlinger reports an equally "unprecedented" number of "hostile, hateful" posts on its Facebook page.

But he credits media coverage for inspiring the owner of El Camino to host the refugee Thanksgiving dinner. And he thinks a story about politicians’ efforts to stop Syrians from immigrating, published November 20 in the same newspaper, helped the nonprofit raise $5,000 that day, its new one-day record.

Said Mr. Koehlinger: "It’s sad that it’s these circumstances that led to our higher visibility."

Send an email to Rebecca Koenig.