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The war in Syria has uprooted millions of people. The U.S. has taken in fewer than a thousand of them. The State Department vows to change that. We start this hour with why that number isn't already larger and meet one Syrian family who has resettled in the U.S. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Sitting in a spartan living room in a working-class neighborhood of East Baltimore, Linda Jomaa recounts an awful day in 2012 when her family decided to flee their homeland. She was trying to get to the hospital on the outskirts of Damascus to pick up her five-day-old son who was being treated for jaundice.
LINDA JOMAA: (Through interpreter) When my husband, he sent the baby to the hospital, they didn't allow the father to stay in, so he was alone in the hospital. And I couldn't reach to that area because of the fights.
KELEMEN: While she was trapped by the fighting at one of her town's many checkpoints, an airstrike hit the hospital, killing her newborn and many others.
MOHAMMAD AL HALABI: (Foreign language spoken).
KELEMEN: This is her husband, Mohammad al Halabi, who says a month after he buried his only son, he took his wife and their five daughters to Lebanon.
HALABI: (Foreign language spoken).
KELEMEN: "It was hard to find work there," he says, and he often had to sell the family's U.N. food rations to pay rent. He worried about his girls, so when his wife heard that it was possible to apply for resettlement in the U.S., they scrounged up the money to travel to and from the U.S. embassy in Beirut for their security checks and interviews. This family is among the lucky few who have managed to make it to the U.S. The top State Department official who works on refugee issues, Anne Richard, expects the number to increase soon.
ANNE RICHARD: We have brought almost a thousand Syrian refugees to the United States since the start of the crisis, but we have received 12,000 referrals from the U.N. Refugee Agency. So in the coming months and years, we're going to see those numbers climb.
KELEMEN: The U.S. takes in about 70,000 refugees from around the world each year. Assistant Secretary of State Richard says post-9/11 security concerns makes it tougher to bring in people from Middle East war zones.
RICHARD: A lot of people are asking me, is it safe to bring refugees from these countries to the United States? So I have to explain that these cases are the most carefully vetted of any travelers to the United States (laughter) and that nobody comes in without having a Department of Homeland Security interviewer agree that they are in fact bona fide refugees.
KELEMEN: Activists say that process takes too long. In the case of Syria, Daryl Grisgraber of the advocacy group Refugees International says the U.S. and the U.N. started late.
DARYL GRISGRABER: It became clear fairly quickly that this conflict in Syria wasn't going to be resolved anytime soon. We probably could have gotten a jump on some of the resettlement issues because the host countries were feeling the strain by 2012.
KELEMEN: Nearly a fourth of the people living in Lebanon now are from Syria, and other countries are bursting at the seams. Grisgraber says the refugees she's met in the region are losing hope.
GRISGRABER: They no longer have the confidence that the international community is out there trying to help bring about a resolution so that they can go back.
KELEMEN: Everyone is stretched thin, says Assistant Secretary Richard.
RICHARD: What concerns me is we need the rest of the world to do more in terms of providing assistance, and we need fewer crises.
KELEMEN: The Halabi family seems to be settling in well in Baltimore with the help of the International Rescue Committee which provided interpreters for my visit. Their ninth grader made the honor roll at her new public school. The certificate is about the only thing Linda Jomaa has on her wall of her small apartment.
JOMAA: (Through interpreter) I feel good that we came here, we moved here and everybody is safe. However, still, we have families behind.
KELEMEN: Some of her brothers and sisters still live in the town that suffered a chemical weapons attack in 2013. She wants the U.S. to do more to help the innocent victims of this war. And as for her own family, she says they need a bit more support until her husband who had a furniture store in Syria can get steady work. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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