Great to be here in Buffalo. Thank you all for being here. I look at segments of this crowd, I feel like I’m at the United Nations [laughter]. It’s not necessarily what I expected. Thank you, Dr. Tripathi, for the generous introduction and for hosting this town hall. More important than that even, thank you for the University at Buffalo’s commitment to working with refugees in the community, which shows the central role our public universities can play in welcoming and empowering these new Americans. I also want to thank all of you for being here with us today, and I’m very much looking forward to opening this up and having a discussion and a back-and-forth. But before we get to that interactive discussion, I wanted to share a little bit about why – with only a couple months left in the Obama Administration – I chose to come to Buffalo. That question that may have occurred to you [laughter], and the answer is relatively straightforward.
As many of you know, the world – right now – is in the midst of the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War. More than 65 million people have been driven from their homes by conflicts and violence, over half of whom are children. Sixty-five million, half of whom are kids. That’s the equivalent of one in every five Americans being displaced. Of the 65 million displaced people, 21 million are refugees, which means that they have fled across an international border. These people are not people who were sitting in their homes and thought to themselves, “How can I find greater opportunity for me and my family?” Nobody chooses to become a refugee. These are people who have fled because their lives and the lives of those they love most depend on it.
It can be difficult to wrap any of our minds around numbers that are just this massive and this daunting. So consider this: today alone – this very day, a beautiful day that I have had a chance to spend in your city – 34,000 men, women, and children will be displaced over the course of the day. That is roughly the equivalent of the entire student body of this university – plus everyone who works here – displaced every single day.
People like the young Syrian parents who I visited in their new apartment, right before coming to this town hall. This lovely couple with two young kids fled Aleppo in 2013 when their apartment building came under fire, and when they saw some of their neighbors being gunned down before their eyes on the street. They didn’t even have passports; as they put it when I talked to them an hour ago, they said, “We never thought we would need passports. We just wanted to stay in Syria.” So they had never even traveled internationally. But with this sudden attack – on their sense of normalcy, on their neighbors, on their friends – they decided to grab their two children – at that time, both kids were under one year-old – and they literally took off running to the border – not walking, not driving – running to the Turkish border. Those are the kinds of circumstances that drive individuals who comprise this number of 65 million to flee their homes.
It is in this context – this deeply human context – that President Obama made a concerted push for the United States to increase the number of refugees we admit. Last year alone, we scaled up our resettlement efforts by welcoming an additional 15,000 refugees – bringing the total number of people who came to the United States under the refugee resettlement program to 85,000. Now that’s, again, against a backdrop of 65 million displaced, 21 million refugees. We are also increasing the support we provide to countries that are taking the lion’s share of refugees – countries like Lebanon, which has a very delicate sectarian balance and political balance to be maintained. But in Lebanon, one in every five residents is a Syrian refugee. Imagine if that were here, where we have a much higher GDP and more stable institutions. Imagine one in five were a refugee.
This challenge is far too great for any single country – even one as powerful as the United States – to address alone. That goes without saying. That is why – just this past September – President Obama, in his last UN General Assembly – a gathering where all the world’s heads of state come to New York, shut down traffic for the people of New York City [laughter], meet to try to solve the world’s most pressing crises – at that, his last General Assembly, President Obama convened leaders from around the world, pressing them to make more substantial, concrete commitments to do more to tackle this unprecedented refugee crisis. And governments actually stepped up, increasing their support for international humanitarian efforts by $4.5 billion, and pledging to create some 360,000 slots in their countries to take in new refugees. Governments also collectively committed to putting an additional one million refugee kids in school, and giving a million more refugees the ability to work legally in the places where they have, up to this point, sought refuge, so that will allow those refugees to provide better for their families.
Because we know, though, that governments alone – even all the world’s governments – also can’t solve this crisis, President Obama also convened the leaders of the private sector to join the effort. And at the same General Assembly, he held a side meeting with CEOs in which more than 50 companies responded to his Call to Action, committing more than $650 million to empower refugees in more than 20 countries worldwide – and that entails providing skills training and jobs, helping them find housing, and offering loans so that they can start their own businesses. This is an all-hands-on-deck effort and must be globally an all-hands-on-deck effort.
Now, we know that not everyone supports the kinds of initiatives and efforts that I have described. As some of you may have heard, we have just come through a pretty contentious election season [laughter], and in that election season, we heard politicians and public figures making some pretty alarming claims about refugees. We heard that refugees – particularly those who come from Syria or are Muslims – pose a threat to our safety, and that we should consider banning them altogether. We heard that some of these individuals may, in fact, be covert operatives for terrorist groups like ISIL, bent on attacking innocent American citizens. And we heard that refugees can come to this country with virtually no vetting at all.
Now, it is reasonable to ask – very, very reasonable to ask – whether admitting refugees poses risks to our communities. And it is not farfetched to think that violent extremist groups might try to take advantage of the displacement of millions of people around the globe to try to sneak terrorists into countries like ours. Our government’s first responsibility is to keep our citizens safe, and this is a responsibility that we all who have the privilege of serving in government take extremely seriously – far more seriously than I can find words to convey.
That is why the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, which every refugee goes through before they come to the United States, has put in place a comprehensive, rigorous review process – one that we have strengthened further over the course of the Obama Administration. Now, the program screens an applicant against multiple U.S. government databases, including those of the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security, which incorporate information from our partners all around the world.
Refugees are interviewed – often several times – before ever being allowed to set foot in the United States, and refugees from Syria are subjected to an additional thorough layer of review. We do not rush; we err on the side of caution. And the process often takes more than a year. While, of course, no system is foolproof, if your aim is to attack the United States, it is hard to imagine a more difficult way of trying to get here than by posing as a refugee. [Laughter.]
You don’t have to take my word for it. Just ask – and there are a few among us here – any of the refugees who have gone through multiple rounds of review what they had to go through to gain admission to this country. Raise your hand if you came to this country as a refugee. Quick, easy process? [Laughter.] Not so much. My point is not, though, that the screening process is excessive. My point is that the review’s thoroughness means that we don’t have to choose between keeping Americans safe and upholding our nation’s long-standing commitment to giving refuge to people whose lives are at grave risk.
Now, another claim we heard at times during the campaign was that refugees, and immigrants in general, are a burden on our communities, taking away jobs from other Americans, driving down wages, and straining already-stretched public services. As with our security, our government has a responsibility to look out for the welfare of American citizens, ensuring that their needs are met, and that they have the opportunities to build better lives. We all know we are coming out of one of the greatest economic recessions that this country has ever known.
It is this specifically that brought me here to Buffalo. New York is the fourth largest recipient of refugees in the country, and roughly one in every three refugees in this state is resettled in Buffalo. In the past 15 years, nearly 14,000 refugees have been resettled in this city, and thousands more refugees have chosen to come here after having been settled elsewhere in the United States. To give just one example, more than 8,000 refugees from Burma – who were resettled in other parts of the country – came to Buffalo, drawn by the city’s vibrant exile community.
So if you want to study the impact of welcoming refugees, and if you want to see what it looks like in a place where thousands of refugee families are choosing to put down new roots, it makes sense to come to Buffalo.
And the facts here speak for themselves. Up to 2005, Buffalo had seen its population decline for five straight decades. That trend was reversed when – thanks to the leadership of Mayor Byron Brown, local resettlement agencies, and faith groups – the city started taking in more refugees.
Over the past six years, Buffalo’s West Side and the Black Rock/Riverside neighborhoods – where the majority of refugees have settled – have seen faster job growth, a higher rate of new businesses formed, and a swifter rise in housing values compared to the other parts of Buffalo and compared to national averages. Now, as I said to the Mayor earlier, no wonder that in a time when many voters have chosen a preference for change, Mayor Brown has been elected by a large margin to a third term. The facts don’t lie. As he put it to me earlier when we visited the West Side Bazaar: Buffalo is moving. Buffalo is happening.
Of course, settling in – whether to Buffalo or to any other community in our great nation – can be challenging for refugees, as it would be for any of us were we to find ourselves in their shoes, forced to start from scratch in a new and unfamiliar place without a network of friends and family to support us and where we might not even speak the language. So it is no surprise that at first refugees may lean on others for help. Perhaps a resettlement agency or a local church, a mosque, a synagogue, perhaps food stamps, a free health clinic, or a group of student volunteers right here at the University at Buffalo. But what I saw today in Buffalo also echoes what we have seen across America for decades: given a helping hand and some time to gain their footing, the overwhelming majority of refugees more than pay back the modest support that they receive.
Let me conclude so we can open up a discussion. At the outset, I noted that the last time we witnessed a refugee crisis on this scale was in the aftermath of the Second World War. During that war, as you know well, the Nazis had occupied most of continental Europe, including France, and set about rounding up and deporting all Jews to concentration camps where some 6 million Jews were systematically murdered.
During this period – the wartime period – the majority of citizens in occupied countries like France were passive bystanders. They kept their heads down. Others collaborated directly with the Nazis in carrying out the Holocaust. But residents of one tiny French farming village called Le Chambon – population 5,000 – made a different choice, providing refuge to anyone who sought it in spite of the profound risks that came with hiding Jews. Over the course of the war, the people of Le Chambon saved the lives of some 5,000 Jews – approximately one Jew for every one of the town’s residents.
Interviewed decades later, a resident who had hidden scores of Jews in her home said that while many people preached the virtue of the commandment to “Love one’s neighbor as oneself,” few, unfortunately, actually practiced it, even when the very survival of their neighbors depended on it. As she put it, “The neighbor to love as yourself is down the street.”
Now, I did not know, I have to admit, before coming here that Buffalo is known as the “City of Good Neighbors.” But as I met today with resident as cross the city, that line kept coming back to me: “The neighbor to love as yourself is down the street.”
I thought about it when meeting with people like Jim and Nancy Caroll. Are they here? Jim and Nancy Carroll? They’re not here but now they're going to be famous. [Laughter.] So they’re missing their moment in the spotlight, but this will get back to them. So Jim and Nancy Carroll, two long-time Buffalo residents, heard one Thanksgiving, not that long ago, that a newly-arrived family of refugees from Burma had an empty fridge, so they packed up their dinner and drove their leftovers – we’re all going to have leftovers in a couple days – over to share with this newly arrived family that had run out of money. Since then, the Carrolls and this Burmese family have become like one family. And indeed, the head of the family, the gentleman from Burma who fled such difficult conditions in Karen State, Burma, came to Brooklyn, couldn’t afford rent in Brooklyn (like most people in Brooklyn [laughter]), came to Buffalo, ran out of money, ran out of the ability to pay his rent. He now owns and runs, in cooperation with the Carrolls, a restaurant that serves some of the best Asian food I’ve ever had – Burmese food. I recommend it to you highly. Some of you may know him. We’ll get you the exact name of the restaurant before I finish tonight. But this is where I had lunch. And everything that happened between the Carrolls and this Burmese family is indicative of the kind of community support that many of you have poured forth to people at their most vulnerable. Leaders of local NGOs, faith groups, and resettlement agencies who, upon seeing areas where their newest and most vulnerable neighbors needed support, rushed to fill them. As they did by, in one example, setting up a free program to help low-income, pregnant refugees overcome the obstacles they were facing to accessing basic health services, which were leading to a high incidence of birth complications. And people like the members of the Westminster Economic Development Initiative, which has provided business training and microloans to help more than 50 refugees launch new businesses in the West End Bazaar. Many of those refugee entrepreneurs have already gone on to open their own stores in Buffalo. Creating new jobs for other residents of Buffalo including both fellow refugees and people who have lived in this city their whole lives.
All of these individuals – and so many more like them – are people who saw around them neighbors to love as themselves. And by extending a hand, by being guided by compassion and facts, rather than by fear, they have treated refugees as we all would hope to be treated if we were to find ourselves in their shoes. Not only that, as I understand it, they have helped strengthen their city making it more vibrant, more diverse, and more integrated. What is more American than that?
Our country has a lot to learn from this “City of Good Neighbors.” I look forward to sharing some of what I’ve learned back at the United Nations when I show up for work in the morning tomorrow, and I thank you for all that you are doing and for the example that you are setting.