This county went heavily for Trump while being a haven for Syrian refugees

Erie, Pennsylvania, which voted for Donald Trump last November, has welcomed refugees by the tens of thousands, including hundreds from Syria.

ERIE, Pa., — When one thinks about the counties and states that delivered the presidency to Donald Trump, places with high rates of manufacturing job losses and high levels of religiosity come to mind. But in the case of Erie County, which voted for Barack Obama by 17 points in 2012 before swinging to Trump in 2016, a large refugee population was another correlating factor.

Erie is home to tens of thousands of refugees. Most reside in the city of Erie. According to one study, no other small American city received more refugees between 2012 and 2016, about 4,000. They have come from places such as Bhutan, Nepal and Sudan but increasingly also from Syria and Iraq. In fiscal year 2016 alone, 658 Syrian refugees were resettled in Erie. Refugees now make up roughly 20 percent of the city’s population of 100,000.

All the refugees we spoke to here said they have been welcomed with open arms. And almost to a person, residents said they are proud that their community is a top refugee destination. The refugees have been welcomed in part because they’re needed. Erie’s new residents have helped temper the impact of the county’s shrinking population.

There is a lot of ignorance about America’s refugee resettlement process. During the presidential campaign, Trump claimed that Syrian refugees were “pouring into” America and suggested that some might be aligned with the Islamic State. His administration has placed a temporary ban on refugees from six countries until a better vetting system can be put in place. 

But Joe Haas, who directs the resettlement program at Catholic Charities in Erie, said the current 20-step vetting process ensures “constant scrutiny” of refugee applicants. It involves many months and usually years and several rounds of information gathering, medical screenings, interviews, cultural orientation and fact-checking. “If at any point along that process a red flag comes up, you either get kicked out of the system altogether or you go back and they re-look at it to find out what’s going on,” Haas said. “To say that thousands of unvetted refugees are pouring through is just either ignorance to the process or an outright lie.”

The recent influx of Syrian refugees in Erie speaks to the length of the process. The Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, but it’s only been in the last couple years that Syrian refugees have been resettling here in significant numbers.

Haas and his team meet refugees at the airport and set up their housing, health screenings and school enrollment for their kids.

Perhaps the most important part of the resettlement process is helping to find work for the refugees. Haas said refugees must be economically self-sufficient at eight months. “From day one we’re trying to get them ready to find a job, get into a job,” he said. “For a lot of them, it means they’re taking a job below their training or their expertise, but they need to get a job.”

Employers are very happy with the refugees, Haas said. They work hard, show up on time and are respectful. They also don’t have problems with drugs, a challenge many employers face when hiring native-born residents.

At the Catholic Charities office in Erie, my brother Jordan and I met Abdul Sitar, a recent refugee from Syria. Sitar, his wife and two children had been in the U.S. only seven months after spending three years in a refugee camp in Istanbul. Sitar, who lost his arm after getting shot by a sniper at a checkpoint in Damascus in 2013, said he was surprised by how welcoming people were in Erie, especially when compared to the treatment they’d received in Turkey, where refugees have few rights and access to few services.

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We also met sisters Hiba Alsabonge and Jasmine Alsabunji. Later, they told us their stories over a delicious homemade dinner of dolma, tepsi baytinijan, fattoush salad and other Iraqi dishes.

Hiba has lived in the U.S. since 2014, and Jasmine since 2012. They were granted asylum because their male family members had worked as interpreters and in logistics with the U.S. military, which made them targets of the jihadists.

At one point, an Islamic State sniper was terrorizing their Baghdad neighborhood by shooting at civilians from a nearby abandoned building. Hiba said they jury-rigged a metal plate to place in their car window whenever they passed the street where the sniper was hiding to deflect any bullets he shot at them. Their father was shot in the stomach and injured in 2007, prompting them to apply for refugee status, a process that took about a year.

Hiba has a degree in laser engineering, but her initial job in the U.S. was as a cashier at Walmart. She enjoyed it, and made such an impression on her co-workers that some of them cried when they learned that she would be leaving to take a job as a case manager at Catholic Charities, where she has worked since 2016.

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Like Abdul, upon arriving in Erie, Hiba and Jasmine were struck by how friendly, polite and law-abiding Americans are. “This is amazing,” Hiba said. “Honestly I get a lot of support, the people here in United States they’re so friendly, so helpful and they are accepting each other, it doesn’t matter who you are. They don’t treat you based on your race or your background. That’s my experience by living here in Unites States.”

“I have a friend who lives in D.C., and I tell him I live in Erie,” Jasmine said. “He say, ‘This is redneck area where nobody likes refugees.’ This is not right. I said, ‘I live there four years and people are so nice, so caring. Really…I [haven’t] met anyone who was against me or didn’t like me.”

Jasmine recounted being invited to give a talk at a Catholic church in Erie. She was nervous because her English wasn’t great and because she’s a Muslim who wears a hijab. She was surprised by the response she received. “Oh my God, the reaction I got after that, like I was looking at their faces, they were crying. Like many women when I was done, they just came and hugged me and said, ‘[We’re] so proud of you, God bless you, if you need anything, [let us know].’ This is amazing.”

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Jasmine said she understood why Americans are skeptical of some immigrants. She knows some who are ungrateful or feel entitled, she said. But “[coming to America] is like heaven for me, so you have to appreciate it, you have to work hard for it. And you just have to prove it … You have to prove yourself to the society.”

More than anything, the sisters said, they appreciated that America is the land of unrivaled opportunity. “Here, if you work hard, you see the results,” Hiba said.

Jasmine said that though she wasn’t eligible to vote in the 2016 election, if she had been, she might have voted for Trump. She saw the president’s travel ban as a reasonable measure but thinks countries with terrible human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, should have been included.

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Some people may find it strange that an Iraqi Muslim woman refugee would demonstrate anything other than utter contempt for President Trump. Some may also find it strange that a county that voted for Trump would be so welcoming to refugees, the fear of whom Trump constantly invoked during the presidential campaign. These are just two apparent ironies for a people and place that defy easy categorization.

Hiba offered this advice to those who feel threatened by resettled refugees: “Don’t judge them until you know them.”

The same could be said of places such as Erie, which helped put Trump in the White House and are welcoming refugees by the thousands.

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