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Erie County is open to accepting Syrian refugees

President Obama intends to resettle thousands of refugees from the war-torn country of Syria and as many as 300 could find a home in the Buffalo region.

Erie County could take in “at least 200 and potentially up to 300” Syrian refugees over the next year in light of the civil war engulfing that country and the migration crisis spreading across Europe, Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said Thursday.

“What’s happening in Syria is horrible,” Poloncarz said. “We as a community of good neighbors – and having the experience of handling immigrants and refugee populations, especially during recent years – will be opening our arms again to help Syrians in need.”

Poloncarz projects 200 to 300 Syrian refugees next year based on some informal conversations members of the Erie County Department of Social Services have had with members within the local resettlement community.

“It could be more, it could be less, depending on what the federal government does,” said Al Dirschberger, commissioner of Social Services.

Local resettlement agencies also are awaiting more information from the federal government.

“Until this is resolved, and the president signs an executive order, it is hard to say for sure what will happen at the federal level,” said Eva M. Hassett, executive director of the International Institute of Buffalo. “It’s also hard to say what that means for the programs in Buffalo.”

The president each year decides how many refugees – and from where – will be admitted into the United States, after fleeing war and persecution in their own country. That figure currently stands at 70,000.

In recent days, however, the United States has been under mounting pressure to raise that ceiling, as growing numbers of asylum-seekers – many escaping the intense fighting in Syria – cross the Mediterranean Sea, looking for refuge in Europe.

The United Nations earlier this week warned that at least 850,000 refugees will make that journey this year and next.

President Obama on Thursday directed his administration to take in at least 10,000 displaced Syrians during the upcoming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

Local resettlement agencies are keeping a close eye on the international crisis – and how the United States responds.

“Should there be an increase in the U.S. refugee number, there would likely also be an increase in the federal support for resettlement programs – and a lot of discussion about the best way to add or improve capacity,” Hassett said.

Erie County has seen a rise in refugees over the past few years, according to figures from the state Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance.

That includes the resettlement of 1,380 refugees during the 2013-14 fiscal year; 1,361 in 2013-14; 1,074 in 2012-13; and 1,055 in 2011-12. Figures for the current fiscal year are incomplete, but as of July, 1,055 refugees were resettled in the county.

But based on the unrest around the world, Erie County’s numbers would appear to be on the rise again.

Journey’s End Refugee Services – one of four resettlement agencies in the Buffalo area – projects an increase in the number of refugees its staff will resettle in Erie County next year, due in part to the Syrian crisis, said Karen M. Andolina Scott, executive director.

Journey’s End handled just three Syrian cases this year, she said, but anticipates resettling anywhere from 50 to 100 Syrian refugees during the upcoming year.

The State Department, however, works closely with the national resettlement organizations – which in turn coordinate with local affiliates, like Journey’s End – to ensure they can accommodate the refugee numbers.

“It’s not just what resettlement agencies can handle, but what communities, in general, can handle,” Scott said.

The arrival of Syrian refugees won’t happen overnight, Poloncarz said.

“This is something that’s going to happen over the next nine months, so we can handle the influx of these refugees,” the county executive said.

Buffalo, Hassett said, is a good place for refugee resettlement.

“There are lots of community partners that help,” Hassett said. “There is capacity in our housing and health care systems, there are jobs that new arrivals can work at to sustain themselves and their families.”

And likewise, Poloncarz said, refugees and immigrants are good for the local economy.

Their investment on the West Side has been tremendous, Poloncarz said.

“When you think about the grand scheme of how many refugees there are from Syria, up to 300 is not a whole lot,” Poloncarz said, “but if we can help a number of families out to resettle and have a better life in the United States, we should do it.”

email: jrey@buffnews.com