Montgomery County continues to welcome refugees and asylum-seekers at a greater rate than almost every jurisdiction in the state.
From 2010 to 2015, the county resettled 2,256 refugees and 2,181 asylees. The number of asylees was more than the number accepted by any other of the jurisdictions in the state except Baltimore City, according to statistics presented in a County Council committee meeting Thursday.
In most cases, the individuals were fleeing countries where they feared for their lives due to political, religious, racial or ethnic persecution, according to speakers who spoke at the meeting.
The update to the council came as controversy swirls around Syrian refugees attempting to flee their war-torn country only to encounter fears about their possible ties to terrorism in the countries where they’ve sought refuge. In November, County Executive Ike Leggett and all nine County Council criticized Gov. Larry Hogan for asking the federal government to cease allowing Syrian refugees into Maryland. The county leaders told the federal government they would continue to welcome Syrian refugees into Montgomery County.
Council member Craig Rice called the fears surrounding refugees a “public perception problem.”
He said many refugees leave behind their families, possessions and everything they’ve built in their lifetimes out of fear for their lives.
“That’s something we have to remember,” Rice said.
Speakers from refugee assistance groups such as the International Rescue Committee and the Ethiopian Community Development Conference told council members they need assistance to help refugees and asylees settling in Montgomery County find employment, stable housing, job training and education. But they also thanked county officials for welcoming the immigrant groups to the county.
Mamadou Sy, program director for refugee and immigrant services at Lutheran Social Services, said one of the major struggles for refugees is the high cost of living in the county. He said it’s difficult for refugees, many of whom don’t speak English, to obtain jobs so they can afford rent after their initial subsidies run out. He said refugees typically receive a little more than $1,000 to pay rent for three months and furnish an apartment.
“There’s no way we can afford to rent a reasonable house for a refugee in the county,” Sy said. “That’s why we have to supplement the program and that’s why it’s a public-private partnership.”
He said the support from the county has been appreciated.
“That’s why we stay,” Sy said. “We see these communities that are welcoming and we see the support from the council and others.”
A majority of the refugees who have settled in the county from 2010 to 2015 were from Iraq, with a total of 603 individuals. That was followed by 333 from Burma, 273 from Afghanistan, 266 from Eritrea, 164 from Congo, 121 from Ethiopia, and 108 from Bhuta.
Most asylees came from Ethiopia, with 968, followed by 440 from Cameroon, 138 from Eritrea, 60 from Congo, and 60 from Togo. Small numbers of refugees and asylees also came from other countries not listed in the council documents. Asylees travel on their own to the United States and seek asylum once they arrive, while refugees go through a thorough review process that typically takes 18 to 24 months before arriving in the United States.
Amber Mull, interim deputy director of the International Rescue Committee, said refugees go through an extensive screening process that includes interviews lasting as long as six hours, fingerprinting and background checks.
Sarah Zullo, managing director of the African Community Center at the Ethiopian Community Development Council, said many of the Ethiopians who make up the fabric of Silver Spring came to the county as refugees or asylees.
“They have since become tax-paying community members,” Zullo said. “What we did for the Ethiopian community, we would like to do for others.”
An asylee from Ethiopia told council members that after arriving in the U.S., she could only afford to live in a basement of a home with her two young children. She explained it took nearly a year to get a work permit and that she hasn’t been able to work as a nurse as she did in Ethiopia before fleeing over fears of political persecution. She said she moved to an apartment 45 days ago, after living in the basement for about two years.
“My experience as an asylum seeker with two young children hasn’t been easy,” she said. “Now, where I am in my life, I can say it’s slightly easier and I don’t have to worry about my immigration status or employment authorization. I’m working to get my [registered nurse’s] license and in the near future I would like to continue my education.”