Baton Rouge received one Syrian refugee over the summer, a man Catholic Charities helped for a few days before he left to meet family in another state.
Catholic Charities said Tuesday the man is the only Syrian refugee they have helped recently, and Louisiana State Police confirmed he had left Baton Rouge for Washington, D.C.
But the news of that one man set off a flood of phone calls Tuesday to the organization, especially misinformation that made some people believe the man had gone missing, Catholic Charities Executive Director David Aguillard said.
One caller even made several threats while on the phone with Catholic Charities, especially against Syrian refugees. State Police said they are investigating the threats and take them seriously.
A State Department official told WWL-TV that 14 Syrian immigrants had been placed in Louisiana, one in Baton Rouge and the others in Kenner and New Orleans.
“The Syrians that we have resettled in Louisiana are not out wandering willy nilly around the country,” Aguillard said.
Records from the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center show six Syrian immigrants arriving in Louisiana, all in New Orleans, since Nov. 1. The records also show the one Syrian refugee who landed in Baton Rouge arrived between June and July.
Catholic Charities officials said the man was by himself, and he stayed for only a few days before leaving to meet with family. But before he left, he had to submit paperwork to the federal government about changing his location, which refugees must do even if they are moving within the same city.
While Catholic Charities is not expecting to receive any more refugees from Syria through March 2016, Aguillard said his group is willing to receive immigrants fleeing the war-torn country with open arms and that people in Baton Rouge need to be compassionate to these people’s plight.
Where Syrian refugees will settle in the United States has become a hot-button issue since the terrorist attacks in Paris over the weekend, with governors across the country trying to take some measures to keep these refugees from their states. Gov. Bobby Jindal signed an executive order Monday to try to block resettlement of Syrian refugees in Louisiana, although it is unclear whether orders like this will be meaningful, as refugee resettlement is handled by the federal government.
Aguillard said Catholic Charities is in the process of determining whether Jindal’s executive order applies to them, but believes it probably affects only state agencies.
Syrians have been fleeing from their homes for years, as fighting between President Bashar al-Assad’s government and rebel forces has left hundreds of thousands dead and millions more trying to find safety in other nations.
“This desire that some politicians seem to have to simply complicate issues and try to label entire populations as somehow our enemy has a negative effect on the lives of people who are coming here, escaping those situations,” Aguillard said.
Catholic Charities and Louisiana State Police officials emphasized at a press conference Tuesday that the Syrian refugee did not cause security concerns. Louisiana State Police Superintendent Michael Edmonson said some of the public outcry might have been prevented had the State Department been more forthcoming with local agencies with details about Syrian refugees entering the country.
In a briefing at the State Department on Tuesday, senior administration officials also tried to address some of the concerns raised in recent days about whether terrorists could be implanted among the Syrian refugees hoping to enter this country.
The officials said refugees must go through finger printing, biographical checks and extensive in-person interviews with the Department of Homeland Security while they are still overseas.
The officials said the refugees from Syria must go through additional layers of security, as well. Their backgrounds are run through multiple agencies, which are meant to track criminal records and useful civil information, like if a refugee has ever applied for an overseas visa.
At Tuesday’s press briefing, the officials also reiterated that the resettlement program for Syrian refugees is a federal one, and that the refugees are protected by the U.S. Constitution and federal law.
Half of the Syrian refugees who have already come to the U.S. have been children, they said.
Aguillard said he has been inspired by Pope Francis, who has encouraged countries to accept and help Syrian refugees.
“Do we want to see them dying in refugee camps? Do we want to see them slaughtered by Assad in Syria?” Aguillard asked.
He said Cajuns should be especially empathetic to the Syrians, given the historical roots of Acadians being kicked out of their homes in Nova Scotia in the 1700s when they were forced to flee to Louisiana.
Carol Spruell, the communications coordinator for Catholic Charities, said the organization has been helping refugees since at least the fall of Vietnam in the 1970s. She said they often arrive with no more than the clothes on their back.
Spruell said Catholic Charities helps refugees find housing and jobs. The organization also tries to help orient them to life in Baton Rouge, by teaching skills like riding the bus, shopping for groceries and keeping a checking account.
Catholic Charities relies on donations to help the immigrants.
“If you have read in the paper about any war, chances are we’ve settled immigrants from that country,” she said.