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How an Ohio Town Became a Model City for Resettling Syrian Refugees

In Toledo, Ohio—just two hours away from the Republican National Convention—there's a thriving enclave of Middle Eastern immigrants.

Ted Hesson

A recent potluck dinner for members of the Arab community, hosted by the University of Toledo Muslim Students Association. Photo courtesy of the UTMSA

Zein Torbey knew he needed to leave his home in Damascus when the Syrian civil war began to escalate in 2012. The violence made everyday life difficult—"explosions all over the place, people killing each other for stupid reasons, airplanes shooting on people on the ground," he told VICE.

So in July 2012, he fled with his wife and two-year-old son to Jordan, where they applied for tourist visas to the United States. He only knew one person in the US—a friend in Toledo, Ohio—so that's where they ended up.

While the Buckeye State might seem like a random place to land, Toledo has a long history of welcoming immigrants from the Middle East. The city's Arab roots extend back to the late 1800s, when newcomers arrived from Beirut and Tripoli. By the 1920s, an ethnic Arab enclave known as "Little Syria" had emerged in the Toledo's north end, forming a neighborhood where residents could be seen sitting on their front porches smoking hookah and sipping Arabic coffee flavored with cardamom.

By the time Torbey arrived in 2012, there was also a well-established network to help immigrants like him acclimate to the city: A local nonprofit, Social Services for the Arab Community, helped his family find an apartment and provided them with free furniture; they showed them how to apply for health insurance and drove his wife, who was pregnant at the time, to doctor's appointments. The group also connected him with a pro-bono lawyer to handle the family's asylum claim. "Those people did everything for us," Torbey said.

Zein Torbey with his family near their home in Toledo, Ohio. Photo courtesy of Zein Torbey

Toledo is hardly the only city with this kind of support for immigrants, but it stands out as particularly welcoming during a time when the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States has become a contentious political issue. After 130 people were killed in Paris terror attacks this past November, more than half of governors across the country announced their opposition to receiving Syrian refugees, expressing concerns over security. John Kasich, the Republican governor of Ohio and then presidential candidate, was among those who called for a moratorium, saying he did not believe the US could adequately screen Syrians.

The cautious mindset has carried over into the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this week, just two hours away from Toledo's Little Syria, where Donald Trump is expected to formally become the party's nominee for president. Trump won over Republican voters in the primary with tough talk on immigration—promising to build a wall on the border with Mexico, deport undocumented immigrants living in the US, and suggesting a ban on all Muslims entering the country. On Sunday, Trump softened his position to "extreme vetting" of immigrants from nations with a history of terror, but that kind of policy stance could still block Syrians from relocating to the US.

In Ohio, it's obvious that such a policy would not only harm would-be refugees, but also the local economies.

"It's amazing how well-behaved this community is," said Ammar Alo, a Toledo-based attorney who has handled dozens of Syrian asylum cases since 2013. Alo, whose parents came to the US from Syria in the late 1970s, emphasized the rigorous screening process required for successful refugee and asylum applicants. "I think Mr. Trump is playing to the crowd, and he's just saying whatever will get him the most cheers."

In Toledo, the growing immigrant population is helping offset the city's declining population, which went from 315,701 in 2000 to 277,933 in 2014—a 12 percent drop, according to census data analyzed in a report co-produced by Welcome Toledo-Lucas County, part of a national initiative to embrace immigrants in their new communities. Over the same period, the city's foreign-born population grew by 14.6 percent.

Those newcomers contribute to the economy both by supporting local businesses and creating their own businesses, according to Corine Dehabey, a resettlement coordinator for US Together, a refugee resettlement agency with offices in Cleveland and Toledo. In the nearby Cleveland area, refugees had a positive economic impact of $48 million in 2012, according to a report by Chmura Economics and Analytics, a research firm specializing in regional economic growth.

"The government won't let them stay on benefits for more than three years," Dehabey told VICE. "Most of them are working in three months."

When Zein Torbey came to Toledo in 2012, he could barely speak English. He washed dishes at a restaurant for a month before taking jobs at a tire shop, a convenience store, and a car mechanic shop. By June 2015, he had saved enough money to open up his own tire shop, a small business he started with the help of Syrian immigrants who had lived in the area for decades.

Photo courtesy of the UTMSA

While many residents of Little Syria have decamped to the suburbs, Toledo remains a magnet for Arab immigrants. Of the 310 Syrian refugees who have been resettled in Ohio since 2013, 90 of them went to Toledo, according to data from the US Department of State.

Part of the reason is the network of support: One Christian organization, Water for Ishmael, runs English language classes, early education for children, and a volunteer shuttle service for those without cars. Another group, the Epworth Furniture Ministry, provides couches, tables, and beds to those in need. And the University of Toledo Muslim Students Association has hosted gatherings, including potluck dinners for refugees and community members.

So far, residents and local politicians have been supportive of the resettlement effort, according to Brittany Ford, the co-lead for Welcome Toledo-Lucas County. Toledo's Democratic mayor, Paula Hicks-Hudson, has spoken out in support of Syrian refugees, and if there's any backlash, Ford hasn't heard about it.

Peter Ujvagi, who sits on the Toledo City Council and served as a state representative from 2003 to 2010, told VICE he hasn't heard any complaints about welcoming Syrian refugees either, which stands in sharp contrast to the immigration rhetoric taking place at the Republican National Convention this week. Ujvagi, whose family spent months living in refugee camps after they fled Hungary in 1956, attributes the welcoming atmosphere to the city's long history of Arab immigrant communities and a recognition of how immigrants contribute to society.

"I'm very proud of this community," he said, "and how they've opened their arms."

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