The best American cities for refugees share these key qualities

The best American cities for refugees share these key qualities
Image: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis
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In late July, I was one of more than 100 residents of Blacksburg, Virginia, crammed into the local library for the first meeting of the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership. We were there to find out what it would take to bring Syrian refugees to our small town in Virginia.

At first, I’d assumed that our town was too small and isolated to make a good home for refugees. But as a representative from Commonwealth Catholic Charities explained, we had a few things going for us: A university with steady employment opportunities. A community of Arabic speakers. And perhaps most importantly, people who really, really wanted to bring Syrian refugees here—not a given in Virginia, considering that the mayor of nearby Roanoke had gone on record saying he didn’t want them.

My town’s excitement over the possibility made me curious about the places in the US where refugees are most likely to thrive. During the 2016 fiscal year, the 10,000 Syrian refugees who fled their war-torn homeland for the United States have ended up all over the place—ranging from major cities like Chicago and Houston to more unexpected locations like Clearwater, Florida, and Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

Now, as the Obama administration plans to welcome up to 110,000 more refugees in the 2017 fiscal year, Americans should try to make sure that the towns and cities where they end up offer the best possible chance at a good life. Here are some of the qualities shared by places where refugees have found success:

Good public transportation. A 2016 study of refugees in Colorado found that their biggest barrier to employment, initially, was that they didn’t have a way to get to work. Eventually, most refugees managed to find access to a car, but the process can take a while for people who are new to a country and lack a credit history or significant saving, not to mention a driver’s license. Settling near the stellar bus and train lines of cities like Pittsburgh, Chicago, Seattle, or Boston would open up more job opportunities for refugees and help them find financial stability.

A culture of volunteerism. San Diego, California, has taken in more Syrian refugees since 2012 than any other city in the US. It’s no coincidence that San Diego ranks fourth in the nation for volunteer hours per resident. Several of the other cities in the top 10 for volunteerism, including Salt Lake City, Charlotte, Columbus, Rochester, Nashville, and San Jose, also welcomed Syrian refugees last year.

Why does this matter? Refugees settling in a new city need volunteers to teach them English, show them how to buy groceries, ferry them to doctor’s appointments, and translate. The presence of a service-happy local population can help assure that they’ll get what they need. Another promising quality in a destination: a high number of nonprofits per capita, as is the case with Des Moines, Iowa, and Burlington, Vermont. This suggests that refugees will have access to services.

A mosque in town. A sense of community is essential for anyone to feel at home in a new town or city—and that often means finding people who have similar backgrounds and shared experiences. In Blacksburg, for example, we were told that two Syrian families placed in a town tend to do better than one because the families can rely on each other for moral support. Given that 90% of Syrian refugees are Muslim, a town with a local mosque is likely to offer new residents a sense of emotional support.

A population that leans Democrat. As you might well guess, Trump supporters aren’t so keen on flinging open the doors to Syrian immigrants. The places that regularly welcome refugees tend to have slightly left-leaning city governments. They’re more likely to be urban than rural, and to be located in college towns rather than blue-collar ones. The city of Fargo, for instance, is the only one in Republican-dominated North Dakota to accept Syrian refugees in the past year. “We have Republican neighborhoods and Democrat neighborhoods,” explains Fargo community activist Kevin Brooks. “But the university population is generally more liberal.” And Fargo has the state’s greatest concentration of liberal voters.

A church-going tradition. In more right-leaning cities, like Boise, Idaho, and Salt Lake City, Utah, residents may still commit to helping refugees if they’re church-goers and feel a moral and religious duty to help the suffering. (It’s interesting to note that both liberals and members of the religious right can often end up doing the same thing for totally different reasons.)

An entrepreneurial ecosystem. There’s a reason why American expats beg their stateside relatives to send peanut butter overseas: Tokens of home, especially food, quell homesickness.

Access to ethnic foods can help refugees, but so can cities with thriving small-business communities where refugees will be encouraged to open stores and restaurants themselves. “Refugees tend to be very entrepreneurial,” says David Lubell, executive director of Welcoming America. “If you take the example of Clarkston, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta, which has had a huge growth in its refugee population over the past 15 years, entrepreneurs come and create halal supermarkets.” Food businesses in particular offer a valuable medium of cultural exchange, as locals experience the culture of refugees by eating at refugee-run restaurants.

Chilly weather. California’s climate might feel more like home to Syrians. But it’s bitterly cold places like North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Vermont that tend to excel on measures of community connection, such as neighborliness and helping. By contrast, Sun Belt states like Nevada, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama tend to score low on these qualities. As the social scientist Robert Putnam put it, “The best single predictor of the level of social capital in American states is distance to the Canadian border.” One theory as to why this might be: brutal weather historically created a pattern of mutual dependence among neighbors, who relied on each other for survival and sanity in winter, and the culture continues today.

In Fargo, says Brooks, some refugees hate the weather enough to leave because of it. “But it surprises me how many still choose to come here because they can get a job and afford to live here.”

A smaller population. There are benefits in mega-cities like New York and Chicago, including an enormous existing refugee community, more resources, and more jobs.

But in small or mid-size cities, or even better, mid-size towns like mine, are often more eager to welcome newcomers into the fold. For example, Dayton, Ohio, like many Rust Belt cities, has been shedding population steadily for decades. By opening their city to refugees and encouraging their entrepreneurialism, “now their population is increasing instead of declining,” says Lubell.

And in even smaller places like Blacksburg, refugees are unlikely to get lost in the shuffle. When we finally get our ducks in a row and bring a refugee family (or two) here, they may spend a while wondering, “Where the hell are we?” But I hope we can help them decide it doesn’t matter—because this place feels like home.