As U.S. Politicians Shun Syrian Refugees, Religious Groups Embrace Them
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Last year 31 governors said they would not resettle Syrian refugees in their states. They said there's not enough security screening. That helped inspire a movement of people who want to welcome Syrians to this country. The U.S. plans to bring in 10,000 Syrians by the end of this fiscal year. That would be October. NPR's Deborah Amos visited a church in New Jersey that is organizing to help refugees as they flee wars.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: We're going to start this part of the story in a church kitchen. The smell of roasted chicken and Middle East spices gusts from the oven. This is the Reformed Church of Highland Park, N.J. The cooks are preparing lunch for a church cafe that opened in April. The aim is to raise money and momentum to provide a safe haven for refugees. The young pastor behind the effort is Seth Kaper-Dale.
SETH KAPER-DALE: Here in the Global Grace Cafe today, we have Najla from Syria. We've got Yvonne from the Congo. We got Jose from Colombia.
AMOS: What's on the menu?
KAPER-DALE: I just know that tabouli's definitely part of it.
AMOS: Syria is definitely part of it. Najla is the head chef of the day. She chops neat piles of mint, eggplant and tomato. She corrects the seasoning. She instructs others in the proper way to cut a lemon based on recipes from her homeland.
NAJLA: I could leave the pure white on it.
AMOS: For some local customers, it's the first taste of Syrian cuisine.
NAJLA: When they taste Syrian food, they like it too much, and they come back again to eat it.
AMOS: So they know what day of the week you cook.
AMOS: And they come.
NAJLA: Yeah, yeah, of course.
AMOS: She just gives her first name, worried about family back home. Najla arrived 10 months ago from the Gulf - Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. She lived there for years but was forced out with her husband and her daughter when her residency was abruptly canceled.
With her home country at war, the church stepped in. Kaper-Dale helped the family apply for asylum, found housing and work for Najla as one of the chefs here. Kaper-Dale says his activism is at the heart of the gospel.
KAPER-DALE: In every one of our faith traditions and at the core of who we are, we're to welcome each other. We're supposed to be good neighbors. And especially when somebody is a victim of the world's abuse, they're supposed to be number one.
AMOS: When 31 governors tried to ban Syrian refugees after the November terrorist attacks in Paris, Kaper-Dale organized a coalition and a pro-refugee march.
KAPER-DALE: Three-hundred people in this town from 30 congregations showed up and walked for two and a half hours to say that refugees are facing crises every day against extremists in the world, and we need to stand with refugees, especially now.
Let's stand and sing together.
AMOS: On Sunday morning, the pews at the Reformed Church are full. Pastor Kaper-Dale welcomes everyone by name.
KAPER-DALE: (Singing) We will seek you first, Lord. You will hear our voices early in the morning.
AMOS: This small church is part of a larger movement across the country - defiant faith-based communities challenging state governors and politicians who want resettlements stopped.
KAPER-DALE: So in our particular context with a governor who has really been a leader in Islamophobia, as far as I'm concerned, and refugee-phobia, it does feel a little bit like - I wouldn't say church versus state, but I would say interfaith versus this particular governor.
AMOS: The particular governor is Republican Chris Christie. He insists Syrians must not come here because some could be a security threat. In April, Christie notified Washington that New Jersey would no longer participate in any refugee resettlement. But he can't legally block it because it's a federally run and funded program. Kaper-Dale says his coalition stepped in when the state government bowed out.
Does the state make it hard for you or not?
KAPER-DALE: I don't think the state will make it hard for us. I mean to be honest, the state doesn't have any authority to do anything to stop us, and we're not afraid of paper tigers.
AMOS: When I come to this church on a weekday, there's a lot going on - small prayer groups, an AA meeting, a thrift shop. But the largest activity by far is a meeting room for the refugee resettlement team.
KAPER-DALE: Every committee is everybody. If you happen to be in the room, you're on the committee.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: All right. One, two, three...
(SOUNDBITE OF CAMERA SHUTTER)
AMOS: The photos are for social media. The coalition has resettled 14 refugees from conflict zones in the past six months, including one Syrian family. And they've committed to resettle 50 more refugees expected to arrive this fall.
Resettling refugees - it's a lot more complicated than it seems. Who finds housing? Who drives the families to required medical exams, schedules English classes, gets the kids registered for school, finds jobs for the new arrivals, gets them to a mosque for worship on Friday?
KAPER-DALE: Who's on the phone today?
KAPER-DALE: Rebecca, hi.
REBECCA: ...From Pompton Plains, N.J. Hi.
Our group is growing, and this is wonderful.
AMOS: The tasks are assigned before the first families arrive. It takes a team of dedicated volunteers and weekly meetings. A social worker is also part of this mix for refugees who arrive from warz ones dealing with trauma and loss and one more recent hire - a restaurant manager who runs the church's Global Grace Cafe.
As hard as it is to resettle refugees, it's even harder to be one. Ask any of the refugee chefs who work in this kitchen. But they've learned that there's power in good food. Cooking is a way to introduce themselves to the wider community. At a time when the political narrative is of refugees and security risks, the cafe demonstrates that refugees have a lot to offer in their new home. As Najla waits for her asylum hearing, she wants to share her memories of Syria through food.
It's now Syria?
NAJLA: Yeah, like Syria, yeah.
AMOS: Can I try?
NAJLA: Of course. I will bring for you. Tell me, like Syria or not?
AMOS: Oh, boy. It's just like Syria.
NAJLA: I'm happy to hear that, really.
AMOS: Does it make you happy to cook?
NAJLA: Yeah, of course I'm happy, especially here with this team.
AMOS: A team that's now like a family, she says. There are more on the way - 50 from war zones around the world, including Syria, says Kaper-Dale.
KAPER-DALE: We have more congregations who are active in our coalition than we will have families arriving. We've received 14 people since February, and that's gone great, so I'm fully anticipating that when we get to 50 people, that will also go great.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: And you're having soup and salad, right?
AMOS: It's a full house at the Global Grace Cafe. The tabouli, the kofta and the Syrian-style lemonade are sold out.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: You want almonds on your salad?
AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News, Highland Park, N.J.
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