Over 4.8 million refugees have fled the violence in Syria since the civil war began five years ago. The majority are in camps in Turkey, Lebanon, and other countries in the Middle East. Over 22,000 refugees resettled in the United States from October through February, but only 955 were Syrian. Only three Syrians have settled in Oklahoma since 2012.
Imad Enchassi is the chair of the Islamic Studies department at Oklahoma City University, the president of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, and the imam of its mosque.
He’s a Palestinian who settled in the United States, and is now an American citizen. He knows about refugees and their struggles first-hand.
“I grew up as a refugee, in a refugee camp in Lebanon,” Enchassi said. “And having seen the Syrian refugee crisis unfold in front of my eyes, first refugees that came to Lebanon was my mom’s family — some of my mother’s family.”
Enchassi wants to bring refugees here to Oklahoma, especially Syrians who are displaced by the bloody civil war. But he’s learned that it’s not easy.
Catholic Charities is the only local organization that resettles refugees in Oklahoma City. Senior Director for Advocacy and Legal Services Richard Klinge says Catholic Charities has helped settle various groups of refugees in the Oklahoma City area.
“The big groups are the Burmese. That’s over the last several years, still the Burmese is the biggest population,” Klinge said. “A lot of Afghan population, and a lot of Iraqis. Those are the three biggest.”
Klinge says few if any Syrian refugees have been settled in Oklahoma City because the federal government chooses which refugees to bring into the country.
The State Department resettled more than 22,000 refugees nationwide in the five months leading up to the end of February, but less than 5 percent were Syrian. Most refugees are joining family members already established here in Oklahoma.
“In other words, there are already family members already here in the OKC area,” Klinge said.
Oklahoma does not have a large or established Syrian population that could welcome and help refugees. That makes the federal government hesitant to place a refugee family into a location without a sense of community. Enchassi says there are other reasons, too.
“The politics of fear are triumphing in certain areas,” Enchassi said.
Enchassi believes Syrians would have a positive effect on the Oklahoma community through their arts, cuisine, and their emphasis on education and family values. He says Syrians are innovative and intelligent.
“If they would just look at them as moms and dads, daughters and sons, a lot of those people, all they want is a place to live, running water, some food to eat,” Enchassi said.
He knows this first hand. He came to the United States at 17, after growing up in a turbulent period in Lebanon’s history. 250,000 people died in a civil war from 1975 to 1990.
“When I became a citizen, I was the proudest man on this planet,” Enchassi said. “And my pay back to my state is love and respect. All my kids are contributing citizens to the state.”
Enchassi says his children love their home and the opportunities they received here. Now, he wishes the children of other war-torn families had a similar chance to fall in love with Oklahoma, too.
This story was produced as part of the University of Oklahoma’s Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication’s Radio News class, which is taught by KGOU.
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