Houston has a history of welcoming refugees

Marketplace Contributor Jan 18, 2016

Houston has a history of welcoming refugees

Marketplace Contributor Jan 18, 2016

Haider Elias says languages are his thing. He’s fluent in four, and he put those skills to work as a translator for the U.S. military in Iraq. Since moving to Houston six years ago, he’s picked up a few new phrases.

“The ‘hasta la vista’ is one that I liked,” Elias said. “It’s always, ‘see you whenever you want.’”

Haider Elias with his wife, Laila and son Prince.

Elias and his family came to the U.S. as refugees. They’re Yazidis, members of the Iraqi religious minority that’s been persecuted by the Islamic State (ISIS). Like almost 40 percent of all refugees who come to Texas, they resettled in Houston. Elias found work within a month at a computer manufacturing company.

 “I already spoke good English and I already knew how to apply for jobs,” he said. “It didn’t take me very long actually to find a job, but that was not the kind of job I was looking for.”

Today, Elias works from home as a freelance translator, and he’s a U.S. citizen. But when he first got to Houston, he didn’t have a lot of options. Refugees don’t get to decide where they resettle in the U.S. Cities are assigned to them based on a number of factors — where they have friends or family, and what kind of economic opportunities they’ll find.

Texas leads the nation in the number of refugees  it accepts. Texas has taken in more than 80,000 refugees over the past 10 years, and most of them come to Houston. But in the wake of recent national security concerns, state officials are pushing to block Syrian refugees from entering. Still, many residents say that won’t trump the welcoming spirit of the nation’s fourth largest city.

Sara Kauffman is the Houston director for Refugee Services of Texas, a nonprofit resettlement agency.

“One of the advantages we have in Houston is we have many jobs available for people who are new,” Kauffman said.

She said most refugees the group works with are employed within four to five months. With thousands more coming to Houston each year, Kauffman said lots of local businesses see an advantage in hiring them.

 “We have some people who call us when they have job opportunities coming up because they know refugees are ambitious,” she said. “They work hard. They are really committed to doing well in their work, and so I think employers recognize that and see refugees as a great hire for them.”

Haider Elias (right) speaks during a panel discussion.

But Houston’s history of welcoming newcomers has been challenged recently. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has been a vocal opponent of resettling Syrian refugees in the state. Abbott’s office declined to comment, but he spoke to Fox News about the issue in November.

 “Texas is saying ‘no more,’” Abbott said.

The state has since gone to court to fight the federal government over Syrian refugee placement, but that’s not been echoed by leaders in Houston. 

Mary Lee Webeck is director of education at Houston’s Holocaust Museum. The museum recently invited Haider Elias to give a talk there. “This city has a heart,” Webeck said. “I think that connecting to that heart and finding people that can communicate with that is really, really essential to all of us.”

The Holocaust Museum audience listened carefully as Elias talked about the history of the Yazidi people’s religious persecution.

“They were left traumatized, and they were forced to put their lives on hold,” Elias said.

Since leaving Iraq, Elias has become a vocal advocate for the Yazidi community. He says getting support from such diverse groups gives him hope about the future of refugees in Texas. 

Note: This story was originally published December 31, 2015. It has been updated.

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