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How Public Libraries Can Help Syrian Refugees
March/April 2016 Issue

The toddler is lying face down on the sand, waves lapping near his face. He looks as though he could be asleep. But 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi is dead, having drowned, with his mother and brother, fleeing violence in Syria. Within a week of this tragedy in September 2015, President Barack Obama raised the number of Syrian refugees that the United States would accept in fiscal year 2016 to 10,000, up from about 2,000 in 2015.

By November 2015, more than 800,000 Syrians had applied for refugee status according to the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR; Accepting a mere 10,000 into our capacious country is a tiny fraction of the help that is needed. Nevertheless, these displaced people are going to need a lot of help settling in our land. Because Syrian refugees mostly speak Arabic and practice Islam (although a handful are Christian), they will be placed mainly in cities that already have established Arab communities: Detroit, Chicago, and Anaheim, Calif., which features a district of settled Middle Eastern immigrants known as “Little Arabia” (Mona Shadia, “Little Arabia Provides Tastes, Comforts of Home,” Los Angeles Times, May 1, 2015;

The Refugee Process

Becoming a refugee in the United States is a difficult journey that usually takes between 18 and 24 months. First, potential refugees must be living outside of their native country because they fear persecution if they return. Most will apply to UNHCR ( Fewer than 1% of displaced persons who apply are deemed eligible for resettlement. These lucky folks are referred to one of nine federally funded Resettlement Support Centers (RSC) overseas. The RSC collects biographic information from applicants to help prepare them for their adjudication interview and for security screening.

The Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS; interviews applicants and reviews their packets. Applicants that win approval then go through health checks. After that, the RSC arranges for a “sponsorship assurance” from a resettlement agency in the United States. It tries to settle refugees near relatives, if they have them here, or to place them in a culturally appropriate community.

Once the refugees arrive in the U.S., a representative from one of nine domestic resettlement agencies accompanies them to their new home. The Department of State’s Reception and Placement program ( offers 3 months of financial assistance. Long-term needs are covered by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement ( Refugees receive health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. They are issued a Social Security card and are eligible to work as soon as they arrive. They are required to get a green card after 1 year and can apply for citizenship after 5 years.

Adjusting to a New Life

When refugees arrive to their new towns, they are greeted by representatives of local nonprofit resettlement agencies who take them to their new homes. In September of 2015, Take Two, the Southern California Public Radio program exclusive to station 89.3 KPCC, interviewed Martin Zogg, the executive director for the Los Angeles-based office of the refugee resettlement organization International Rescue Committee (IRC;

According to Zogg, “When they come to Los Angeles, we pick them up at the airport, we take them to their new homes, we provide furniture, we provide them with culturally appropriate foods” (“What Happens After Refugees Arrive in America?” Southern California Public Radio, Sept. 16, 2015; In the interview, Zogg explains the importance of this welcome. “They’ve endured years of persecution and war, to the extent where they have decided to flee and cross an international border. They’ve gotten refugee status and may have spent years thereafter in a refugee camp, and finally they’re approved to resettle. They get on a plane and fly for 15 hours and arrive in Los Angeles, to a place they’ve never been before.”

The Role of Public Libraries in Helping Refugees

Although local nonprofit resettlement agencies are primarily responsible for helping Syrian refugees settle into their new homes, providing access to medical care and vouchers for food and job training, it is appropriate for public libraries to offer services to these new arrivals.

“Public libraries in the United States have a long history of providing resources and education to immigrants. This tradition may be traced to Andrew Carnegie’s support for public libraries as a place for immigrant self-education, enlightenment, and the study of democracy and English,” states “Library Services for Immigrants: A Report on Current Practices,” produced jointly in 2007 by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (

Indeed, the Los Angeles Public Library ( has already partnered with the IRC to provide ESL (English as a second language) and finance classes (“Eagle Rock Plays Host to Successful Citizenship and Financial Literacy Classes,” Rourke Healey, IRC [n.d.]; In addition to its live programs, the Los Angeles Public Library offers a directory of internet resources to help immigrants in the areas of citizenship, getting a job, literacy, health, and money matters.

Many libraries in cities with large immigrant populations provide programs and services to help immigrants learn English and prepare for citizenship. Others have resources aimed at vulnerable citizens trying to re-adjust to free life in the United States: those coming out of prison. Marissa Richardson, program coordinator for the Westchester Library System headquartered in Tarrytown on the Hudson River north of Manhattan, writes that, to help the re-entry population from the local county correctional facility, her supervisor Elena Falcone developed an online resource called Westchester Connections ( “It’s a really good comprehensive guide to service organizations in the Westchester community,” Richardson adds.

A section of the guide devoted to new immigrants ( offers links specific to New York and also to (, which provides referrals to local legal aid and public interest law offices across the nation. In addition, the site features a special section, called Immigration Law Help (, for new arrivals to our nation, which can be sorted by locality and by languages served, including Arabic.

“The Westchester Library System also has, which is a resource directory as well,” notes Richardson. “It’s placed at a 5th grade reading level for low literacy.” presents links to help with earning a high school diploma and getting into college, looking for a job, helping one’s children, getting familiar with computers, and learning English.

Richardson runs a program at the Westchester system called Pull Up a Chair at Your Library, designed to help older adults find support in the areas of jobs, family, health, and home. Although Westchester Connections and were not developed to help her constituency, she declares, “I’ve been using it as my primary resource for services in the community. Honestly I’ve been using this for everyone!” These excellent internet directories contain open web links of use to immigrants and refugees across the country.

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Irene E. McDermott is Reference Librarian/Systems Manager at the Crowell Public Library, in the City of San Marino, CA.


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