Can Detroit offer fresh hopes for Syrians? NYT columnists think so

Syrian refugee children try to put up their tent that has fallen over the recent stormy days at Zaatari Syrian refugee camp in Mafraq, Jordan, Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015. (File photo: AP)

The city of Detroit in the U.S. state of Michigan was once a city of 1.9 million in 1950. Its population is now 700,000 and is also home to 70,000 abandoned buildings and 90,000 vacant lots. Halfway across the world in Syria, a tragic civil war has led to 1.8 million Syrians fleeing to neighboring Turkey and 600,000 to Jordan.

Could these two seemingly disparate social and economic issues be brought together to create a new and positive future?

Allowing Syrians to settle in Detroit is a scenario explored by the co-authors of a New York Times article by David D. Laitin and Marc Jahr.

According to the co-authors, a plan to resettle Syrians in the derelict city of Detroit already has the groundwork in the form of Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan’s plan proposed in January 2014 to allow 50,000 immigrants to settle Detroit.

The plan to revitalize Detroit was put into place via the creation of a Michigan Office for New Americans.

Laitin and Jahr say “Syrian refugees would be an ideal community to realize this goal, as Arab-Americans are already a vibrant and successful presence in the Detroit metropolitan area.”

A 2003 survey by the University of Michigan that included 1,016 members of the Syrian community found that 19 percent were entrepreneurs and that the median household income was $50,000 to $75,000 per year.

Syrian refugees in countries like Turkey and Jordan who have suffered the consequences of war have managed some success with limited resources. Despite their limited resources, Syrian refugees in Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan have set up 3,500 shops, stores and other businesses.

Laitin and Jahr point out that “refugees resettled from a single war zone have helped revitalize several American communities, notably Hmong in previously neglected neighborhoods in Minneapolis, Bosnians in Utica, N.Y., and Somalis in Lewiston, Me.”

The ambitious plan would require close coordination between various branches of the U.S. government, but Laitin and Jahr say it is “eminently feasabile.”

They also say that “President Obama and Congress would have to agree to lift this year’s refugee ceiling by 50,000. The State Department, which handles overseas processing of refugees, would need to open offices at the camps in Jordan and Turkey, determine eligibility and administer a lottery for resettlement.”

They add that, “Homeland Security, which controls the borders, would have to carry out accelerated security checks as has been done in the past for Vietnamese and for Iranian religious minorities. Health and Human Services would need an expansion in the $1.5 billion it budgets for refugee resettlement.”

“Syrians would bring new vigor and catalyze its nascent recovery,” they added.

Critics point to difficulties of assimilation, however Detroit is a melting pot of religions, ethnicities and cultures.

The city, which has a large African-American population, most recently elected a white mayor, the first time in more than 40 years.

It also emerged more resilient than ever after a municipal bankruptcy giving the city the ability to invest in long-neglected public services against all odds.

Michigan is already home to sizeable Arab-American communities and ambitious Syrians coming to Detroit would have incentive to establish roots in the city even after achieving a modicum of economic security, the columnists say.

Laitin and Jahr defend their ambitious Syrian refugee resettlement plan by claiming that “resettling destitute, innocent refugees is consistent with America’s moral and ethical commitments; it would send a powerful message to President Bashar al-Assad, the Islamic State and the world about American compassion and ingenuity.”
 

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