ERIE, Pa. — Over dinner of chicken, yogurt and bread, the Al Salibi family told the terrifying story about the day soldiers in their native Syria stopped their son Mahmoud, now 19, at a checkpoint.
He was questioned and asked to show ID.
“It was OK. He wasn’t taken away,” Ali Al Salbi said through an interpreter.
But that moment convinced the Al Salibis they had to get out. “There was no security whatsoever,” Al Salibi said.
That was 2012. Now five years later, the family of six is settling into a new modest home in Erie, Pennsylvania. They’ve been in America about six months.
“It’s a good place," he said, adding that whenever he tells people in Erie he’s a refugee, they smile and say, “Welcome.”
The Trump administration is fighting to roll up the welcome mats. The president's immigration order, if it goes into effect, would stop any refugees from entering for 120 days. In addition, Trump has capped at 50,000 the total number of refugees who would be allowed in this year. That’s less than half of the 110,000 level that President Barack Obama had set. In 2016, more than 84,000 refugee resettlements happened in the U.S., the largest number during the Obama years.
Erie has embraced so many refugees that this RU.S.t Belt city that’s seen more prosperoU.S. times has one of the highest concentrations in the U.S. of people who’ve fled persecution. As many as 700 refugees annually have been arriving here in recent years — from Syria, Iraq, Bhutan, Congo, among other countries.
In fact, the Mayor’s office says refugees make up some 18% of the city’s population of about 100,000.
Two agencies, Catholic Charities and the International Institute of Erie, are tasked with greeting the new arrivals.
“I think it’s kept U.S. alive. I think it has kept U.S. moving forward," said Paul Jericho of the Multi-Cultural Community Resource Center.
Jericho has been helping refugees resettle since Vietnamese families started arriving during that war in the 1970’s. He agency helps find jobs, homes, English classes, and everything else families new to this country need.
What’s his reaction to the Trump administration's refugee plans?
“It’s a bit offensive,” Jericho said. “It’s offensive becaU.S.e refugees add so much to the community.”
Jericho estimates refugees have opened over 100 bU.S.inesses in Erie during the past 10 to 12 years. “They rent a lot of apartments, they buy a lot of things, they pay taxes immediately," he said.
A short drive from downtown, out in Erie County, an area that Trump won in addition to carry the state, is Sterling Technologies, a small manufacturer that makes all types of plastics, everything from highway barriers to kids toys. Walking the floor with manager Marty Learn, there were workers from Bhutan, Syria, and Congo putting the finishing touches on big barrels and composters. Pay starts at $9 per hour.
“They’re here to do a job, to make a living for their family. JU.S.t like me and you,” Learn said, with a chuckle.
Sterling started hiring refugees a few years ago when it couldn’t find enough workers willing to take lower-skilled and lower-paying jobs. Today, refugees account for some 25% of the workforce of the growing company.
“I don’t have a problem with legal immigrants coming in. I think they should all go through a process,” he said, pointing out that some refugees who started at the plant years ago have become U.S. citizens.
“Refugees are the most vetted people that come into this country," Jericho said, noting it's a process that can take years. “If I’m a terrorist, I’m not going to come through the refugee process.”
“We’re in the bU.S.iness of education here, and I think a lot of that fear, a lot of that resentment, comes from a place of lack of education,” said Jay Badams, superintendent of schools.
He was standing in the entryway into East High school, where flags from around world hang on the walls — from Thailand, RU.S.sia, Ethiopia, Bosnia and dozens of other countries, each marking a student in the school’s homeland. More than 30 languages are spoken by students.
Educators don’t ask and don’t make a distinction between legal and illegal immigrants or refugees. They teach everyone who comes through the front door.
The Al Salibi family have two children in the high school, including Mahmoud.
What does the superintendent think about limiting the number of refugees coming into the U.S.. his schools, and his community?
“I think students coming out of here will have a much different opinion when they’re adults…than some of the folks who right now are experiencing a sort of angst and worry about people coming here from other countries,” Badams said.