Foon Rhee

Listen to some true stories of refugees in Sacramento

Pope Francis meets refugees at the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos on Saturday before taking 12 Syrians back with him to Rome. Resettlement agencies in Sacramento and elsewhere are also welcoming refugees.
Pope Francis meets refugees at the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos on Saturday before taking 12 Syrians back with him to Rome. Resettlement agencies in Sacramento and elsewhere are also welcoming refugees. The Associated Press

It’s astounding how much chatter about refugees there has been in the presidential campaign – and how much of it is hogwash and hysteria.

Some Republicans try to frighten us by warning that dangerous terrorists are somehow hiding among those desperately fleeing the Syrian civil war, though many are women and children. At his rallies, Donald Trump does a truly bizarre reading of the lyrics to a 1968 R&B song, comparing refugees to vicious snakes.

So, in search of a badly needed dose of reality, I stopped by the offices of Opening Doors, a refugee resettlement agency in Sacramento.

I listened to the stories of two Iraqis who have made new lives here and are paying it forward by helping new refugees. In a way, they do quietly and unnoticed what Pope Francis did to worldwide attention over the weekend, when he brought 12 Syrian refugees back to Rome from a migrant camp in Greece.

Russul Roumani, 47, worked as a human resources manager for a U.S. company in Baghdad after the invasion. But after two co-workers were kidnapped and one was killed, she fled for Syria in 2006. She spent two years there as a volunteer helping refugees before the company helped her get a visa. She arrived in Sacramento in 2008, and started working at Opening Doors in late 2011.

Mohammed Al Salloom, 52, ran an export-import business in Baghdad before the war. He knew English from studying in Britain and needed to support his family, so in 2004 he took a job with the U.S. Agency for International Development, working to restore schools and hospitals. But he was threatened, even shot at, so he left for Jordan in 2005 and later applied as a refugee. He came to Sacramento in 2010 and started work at the agency in 2012.

He and Roumani actually knew each other in Iraq; she greeted him at the airport when he arrived in America.

It’s a small world.

The plight of refugees should remind us just how small – and that our foreign policy can change lives halfway around the world.

America broke Iraq by ousting Saddam Hussein in 2003. So now we own it, even though the U.S. war ended in 2011. That responsibility includes sheltering refugees, especially those who risked their lives to work with Americans.

We should be proud – not afraid – that the United States is still the leading destination for refugees, taking in about 70,000 in 2014-15. California accepted more than 5,700 of them, ranking behind only Texas.

There’s only a slow trickle of Syrian refugees, whose vetting is more stringent and time-consuming than for others. Fewer than 1,300 Syrians were admitted from October through March, including 127 in California. The pace will have to pick up for the Obama administration to reach its goal of 10,000 before Oct. 1.

There are far more refugees from Iraq, nearly 20,000 in 2012-13 and in 2013-14, when it was the top country of origin and accounted for 28 percent of all refugees. In 2014-15, it was overtaken by Burma, but nearly 13,000 Iraqis still came to America. California took in nearly 16,000 Iraqis from 2009 through 2014, half of all refugees coming to the state.

Sacramento County has a long and proud tradition of welcoming refugees. Since 2009, it has ranked behind only far-larger Los Angeles and San Diego counties, accepting nearly 4,500 by the end of last year. While San Francisco may like to think of itself as a sanctuary for the oppressed, it only took in 328, partly because it’s just too expensive.

Also, Sacramento County is by far the most common destination in California for those who get special visas because they worked for the U.S. military or government in Iraq or Afghanistan – more than 2,400 from 2010 to the end of 2015.

Part of that load is being carried by Opening Doors, which served 351 refugees in 2014-15, and which expects 510 this fiscal year and 720 in 2016-17. Refugee programs account for about 40 percent of the $2.3 million annual budget of the agency, whose 28 staffers also aid immigrants and human-trafficking victims.

Roumani works with newly arrived refugees, helping them get health care, enrolling them in English classes, driving them to their appointments. The culture shock can be daunting, and she says it’s tougher for women because most don’t work in Iraq.

Al Salloom works with refugees once they’re more established, aiding those who want to start their own businesses – as car detailers, mechanics, Uber drivers – with microenterprise loans, usually from $1,000 to $10,000. He interviews them, translates their business plans and makes recommendations to the loan committee.

They’ve heard what presidential candidates have been saying about refugees, and they’re dismayed. Everyone, they say, should get a chance at a decent life.

Roumani became a U.S. citizen in 2013. Yet she still dreams of returning to Iraq to work with an NGO that helps orphans and widows – but only if it’s safe enough.

“I hope so,” she says. “One day.”

Al Salloom, who became a citizen in June, doesn’t plan to go back. Part of his American dream is to open a social club where Iraqis can gather for parties and weddings, like back home. All 5,000 to 6,000 Iraqis in Sacramento County would be welcome, Sunni and Shia alike.

“We’re all Muslim,” he says.

This could be another part of his dream: The youngest of his three sons, who is 16, is interested in politics and is talking about running for Congress one day.

“Anything can happen,” Al Salloom says. “Why not?”

Instead of Trump’s anti-refugee rants, isn’t that what America should be about?