On Friday, a Syrian family who fled their country, then made their way to Turkey will be arriving in the U.S., where they will be met by staff from the International Institute of New England.
Thielman, president and CEO of the International Institute, said he is excited about the new arrivals. The Syrian family was supposed to land earlier, but the day before they were to board a plane, President Trump’s executive order banning refugees from seven majority Muslim countries took effect.
This family is among the 16 refugees, all desperate for a new life and grateful to be in the U.S., that the International Institute will help since a federal court judge suspended the order. Flights were able to begin early this week and more are scheduled through Feb. 17.
For nearly 100 years, the International Institute has been aiding refugees who arrive in the U.S., helping them secure places to live, get jobs and place their children into schools.
Each year, the organization resettles 600 to 700 refugees from countries that include Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, Congo, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan. The nonprofit, which has offices in Boston, Lowell and Manchester, New Hampshire, also offers English language learning, skills training and citizenship programs.
But not everyone is as excited as Thielman about these new immigrants. Those who disagree with their efforts often reach out to the International Institute, he said, to voice their displeasure. More often than not, the issue revolves around security.
When confronted by those who want to prevent the refugees from entering, Thielman says he does the only thing he can: He talks to them.
“What we spend most of our time on is conversation, educating them,” he said. Thielman and his staff explain the process, and “the steps we take, the security screenings the U.S. does.’”
That process begins overseas.
There are about 21.3 million refugees in the world, Thielman said. These are people who have left their home countries and cannot go back, often out of fear of persecution (for their faith, politics or actions taken against the current leadership).
Less than 1 percent of those refugees — about 200,000 — will be resettled in a country where they will have a path to become a legal citizen, Thielman said.
For those trying to enter the U.S., the process is long. While still overseas, they undergo two years of vetting. The Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Intelligence, U.S. Counterterrorism officials and more have a hand in the screening process.
“We have the strictest screening in the world,” Thielman said. “We have very strong, safe security and screening programs. This is the reality.”
When they’re through, the International Institute’s national office in Washington notifies the New England branches two to four weeks in advance that someone is heading their way.
“We meet the clients for the first time when they arrive at the airport,” Thielman said. “Before they arrive, our staff gets data on them: how old they are, how many children they have, their work history, education level; so we’ve been thinking about them, but we don’t really know them until they arrive.”
The nonprofit is crucial to supporting refugees in their new lives. Staffers put them in an apartment, and provide them with food and clothing. Case workers bring them to doctors’ appointments and, often, mental health visits, necessary because of the trauma they’ve experienced.
A late-breaking federal court ruling on Thursday evening refused to reinstate Trump’s travel ban, good news for refugees.
Thielman says his organization will help those refugees, just as it has been doing for decades. “They’ve done everything they were supposed to do under the laws of the U.S.,” he said.“They should be able to come to this country.”