Syrian refugees are coming here, too, and aid groups are getting ready

As hundreds of thousands of Syrians make their way across Europe, some by foot, local agencies are preparing for some of those people to land here.

“We are expecting a wave of Syrian refugees in Orange County,” said Nahla Kayali, founder and executive director of Access California Services, an Anaheim nonprofit that provides services largely to Muslim refugees and immigrants.

“We don’t know when they will come. But we are getting ready to receive them.”

In the past month, Access California Services has helped at least 30 Syrian refugee families moving to Orange County, providing everything from financial aid and school supplies to mental health services.

Kayali said most of those families spent several years in other countries before receiving refugee status from the United Nations and finding their way here.

Kayali and her staff met Friday to discuss the possibility of helping hundreds of Syrian refugees during the next year, or even within the next few months.

She said the agency might hire more caseworkers and mental health professionals to provide trauma counseling and therapy to help those individuals and families heal, integrate and thrive.

“We’re looking to hire members of the local Syrian community,” Kayali said. “We want people who can be culturally sensitive, understand their situation and speak the same language.”

Since the outbreak of Syria’s civil war in 2011, more than 4 million Syrians have fled abroad. The United Nations has described it as the largest refugee crisis in almost 25 years. In addition, 7.6 million people within Syria have been displaced from their homes.

For several months, Turkey and Jordan have borne much of the impact. But in recent weeks, European nations have been grappling with the issue, dealing with refugees who are trying to flee by land and sea. On Friday, Germany and Austria agreed to accept some refugees who are crowding the Hungarian border.

The stories of tragedy and strife continue to bombard media and social media sites.

Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian Kurdish boy whose lifeless body washed ashore at a Turkish resort, has become the symbol of the refugees’ tragic situation.

Aylan, his brother and their mother drowned during a treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea. Their goal was to land in Canada. Only Aylan’s father survived.

Glen Peterson, director of World Relief Garden Grove, said the heart-rending image of Aylan reminded him of families with little children that walk into his office daily.

“I read that the boy’s father had great hopes of finding safety for his wife and two children outside Syria,” he said.

In the past year, Peterson said, he has helped hundreds of families relocate in Orange County from unsettled countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Peterson said motivation is simple – safety and opportunity for their children.

Although Orange County organizations should start preparing to receive incoming refugees, efforts also should be made to prevent refugees from fleeing the country, said Hussam Ayloush, national chairman of the Syrian American Council.

“We’re working with President (Barack) Obama and the Congress to establish no-fly zones in liberated parts of Syria, to protect civilians from airstrikes,” said Ayloush, who is also director of the Los Angeles branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, based in Anaheim.

“That is one of the main reasons millions of refugees are fleeing the country.“

The Syrian American Council also is working to increase the number of Syrians allowed into the United States as refugees. Currently, the U.S. quota for refugees from all countries has been set at 70,000.

Since the war began in Syria in 2011, only about 1,500 refugees from Syria have been resettled in the United States.

Anisa Abeytia, California director of the Syrian American Council, said she saw the plight of refugees last month when she was visiting Belgrade, Serbia, where hundreds of families had created a makeshift camp in a city park between the bus and train stations.

“I saw all classes of people – rich, poor, middle class, educated and uneducated,” said Abeytia, who is based in Southern California. “People were lying on the floor, even babies and disabled people.“

The refugees told Abeytia that they had nothing left in Syria to return to.

Syrian Americans are grieving silently for their people because nothing they say can make the misery of the suffering millions go away, Abeytia said.

“What our local Syrian community is experiencing is utter helplessness, guilt and frustration.”

California is home to the largest Syrian population in the nation. Both Los Angeles and Orange County are home to generations of Syrian immigrants, Abeytia said.

Kayali, of Access California Services, said she has heard from many Syrians in Orange County who are worried about relatives trying to make their way through Europe.

“They’ve lost touch,” Kayali said. “The people who are in transit have either lost their cellphones, can’t charge them or don’t have money to continue using their cellphones.

“It’s a very scary time for these families right now.”

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