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U.S. charities urge Obama to let in more Syrians, ask churches to help

Most of the refugees would be brought to the United States by plane from refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey after they are processed by U.N. officials. [CHRISTOPHER FURLONG | Getty]

Refugee resettlement agencies based in the Washington area said on Friday that they are preparing to welcome refugees from the war in Syria, even as they petition the Obama administration to resettle far more than the roughly 10,000 refugees the White House announced this past week would be accepted.

It is not clear how soon Syrians might begin arriving. The United Nations refugee agency has referred more than 18,000 Syrians for resettlement, and the United States has accepted only about 1,600.

Most of the refugees would be brought to the United States by plane from refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey after they are processed by U.N. officials.

Shaina Ward, a spokeswoman for Refugee Council USA, said its members are working to "figure out how we can collectively best welcome them." She said services will "run the gamut between picking them up at the airport to helping them apply for jobs, get Social Security cards and enroll in English classes. It covers all aspects of life."

The newcomers will receive orientation, medical exams and English classes before being relocated among scores of sites around the country. Many will go to Syrian communities in cities such as Detroit and San Diego, and others to mid-sized cities with lower housing costs. Some are expected to end up in the Washington region.

A coalition of nine major resettlement organizations sent an open letter to President Barack Obama this past week urging the administration to accept 200,000 refugees in the current fiscal year, including 100,000 Syrians.

"It is abundantly clear that the Syrian crisis is nowhere close to ending," wrote Melanie Nezer, chair of the coalition and of the Refugee Council. She said the United States should open its doors as widely as it did during the Vietnam War, in part to encourage similar action from European nations and help prevent further suffering and abuse of Syrian refugees who have fled to neighboring countries.

Many of the resettlement agencies in the United States are faith-based and are making a direct appeal to churches here to help resettle Syrian refugees.

"We believe every American church congregation should welcome a refugee family into their community," Stephan Bauman, president of the Baltimore-based Christian charity World Relief, wrote in a news release.

Linda Hartke, executive director of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service in Baltimore, said "the indication that the administration plans to resettle only 10,000 Syrians is woefully short of what we need to do and what we can do."

A State Department official said Friday that the resettlement program for the current fiscal year has about $1.1 billion in funding, enough to cover 70,000 individuals. State Department officials have said that more refugees will be admitted next year, but the exact number is still being determined.

An estimated 145,000 Syrian Americans live in the United States.Earlier influxes were dominated by Christian immigrants, but in recent years more Muslim refugees have arrived fleeing conflict.

Officials of several charities said they were concerned about public resistance in some areas of the United States to accepting large numbers of Muslim refugees. They said they hope to counteract such fears by appealing to Christian principles of compassion.

"We have all been heartbroken by the images of families escaping the Syrian conflict," Bauman said. "The American church is ready and willing to extend open arms to those fleeing war and terror in the Middle East."

Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the District, said Pope Francis has stressed "our common humanity" in responding to refugees, and that the organization's services are based on "need, not creed." The conference helps resettle 25 percent of refugees who come to the United States.

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has an appeal on its Facebook page, asking people to join a petition drive for U.S. officials to accept more Syrian refugees. On Friday, the page also contained messages from people asking how they could sponsor a refugee family.

Among the area agencies that expect to assist arriving Syrians are Catholic Charities in the District and Northern Virginia; and, in Baltimore, the Lutheran agency, World Relief and the International Rescue Committee in Baltimore.

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