Syrian Refugees – The Conversation

Syrian Refugees – The Conversation
Sarah Ascha, Dr. Mark Toney, Prof. Parvez Ahmed, Dr. Ghaith Mitri were panelists at Coming Together.

The highly charged issue of immigration policies makes it a challenge for residents with ties to the Middle East to safely to express their concerns. Sabeen Perwaiz, a Pakistani immigrant, decided to organize Coming Together: A Conversation about Syrian Refugees to provide a safe place for residents of Middle Eastern descent to share their experiences and address concerns.

“I know the people of this city are capable of more and I want to provide them a safe space for this conversation. This way people could address their concerns and work off of facts rather than their fears,” she said. “And I think that occurred, based on the responses I have been receiving and the number of people that either tuned in or showed up that night.”

Riverside Presbyterian Church was one of five churches across the city that Perwaiz asked to host the event. “They were the only ones that came back and said yes,” she stated.

At the public forum on Jan. 7, the Rev. Bill Hoff, associate pastor of family and youth at Riverside Presbyterian, welcomed a standing-room only audience of nearly 200, plus another 75 who watched it online.

“It’s an urgent conversation and that’s evident by the fact that so many of you are here in this room tonight,” said Rev. Hoff. “It’s urgent because many lives hang in the balance and a world of peace in the future depends on acting with justice and compassion now. We hope tonight will be a great opportunity to listen with respect and sow seeds of peace and hope.”

The focus of the event was a panel discussion, moderated by Dr. Parvez Ahmed, University of Florida professor of finance.

Each of the three panelists with ties to the Middle East – Ghaith Mitri, M.D., Mark Toney, M.D., and Sarah Ascha – shared their own or their families’ immigration stories as well as their lives in Jacksonville, and their experiences with (sometimes unconscious) profiling.

Mitri is a Roman Orthodox Syrian who grew up in Kuwait. He has lived all over the world and, in Jacksonville, worked as a rheumatologist before moving to Chicago. Toney is Division Chief General Pediatrics-Hospitalist at Nemours Children’s Specialty Care, and the fourth generation of a Syrian family who immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s looking for a better living. Ascha, who was born in southern California, is a Syrian Muslim whose father came to the United States to escape religious persecution and started a thriving dental practice in the Los Angeles area.

Prior to the panel discussion, Travis Trice, Church Mobilizer and Immigration Advocate for World Relief Jacksonville, shared statistics on refugee resettlement in Jacksonville and described the lengthy screening process that all refugees must undergo to enter the United States.

Last year, World Relief Jacksonville helped approximately 50 Syrian refugees find a permanent home in the city, according to Trice, who anticipated the organization would settle over 500 refugees total from all countries in Jacksonville in 2016.

“Jacksonville is a unique city in the United States, as we are one of the receiving cities for Syrian refugees, so some of them will be coming here,” said Trice. “We don’t know how many; sometimes we only get days’ notice, so it’s hard to prepare services.”

Immigration simpler, but not any shorter

The screening process can often take years to accomplish and Perwaiz knows what that’s like from the standpoint of an immigrant.

“I moved to New York City at age nine. Emigration was a much simpler process but did take over five years as well,” said Perwaiz. “I can’t really compare it with resettlement since my circumstances were much different. I went to a British school in Pakistan and was already fluent in English as were my siblings. My parents had a tougher time because they had to adjust to a new culture and societal norms.”

 Sabeen Perwaiz organized a community conversation about the Syrian refugee crisis. (Photo by Tiffany Manning)

Sabeen Perwaiz organized a community conversation about the Syrian refugee crisis. (Photo by Tiffany Manning)

Perwaiz works as Earn Up project manager for JAXUSA Partnership, a private, nonprofit division of the JAX Chamber, and is executive director and co-organizer of TEDxJacksonville, as well as a Women’s Giving Alliance Fellow and a Leadership Jacksonville Class of 2016 member.

Having moved to Florida in 2011, Perwaiz made her home in Riverside, which has less than 100 residents of Arab ethnicity, according to “I love the walkability and community-mindedness in Riverside and never considered any other neighborhood when I was looking to move from New York City,” she said.

Perwaiz said she plans to do more events like this, but is not sure about when or how many. “I think the overall response to the event was positive. Audience members have reached out and asked for more conversations.”

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News
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