— When Madiha Algothany and her family, Syrian refugees who had fled to Jordan, arrived in the United States
in June, they braced for rejection from a new culture and country they feared did not want them.
They knew that, like Donald J. Trump, many Americans wanted to stop Muslims from coming into the country.
But Ms. Algothany and her husband and their four sons found a furnished town home in Baltimore waiting for them, along with a case worker to help them navigate their new life — part of an effort President Obama announced last fall to resettle 10,000 people displaced by the war in Syria
by the end of September. After a slow start and amid fierce political controversy, the Obama administration is on track to meet that target and probably exceed it, according to figures it released on Friday.
“We were told it will be very difficult for us in the U.S. because the people don’t like us and they don’t want to deal with us, but what I found is that people received us very well,” Ms. Algothany, 32, said in an interview this week, speaking through an interpreter at a resettlement center run by the International Rescue Committee. “They are really spending a lot of time and effort helping us, to answer our questions and help us in our life.”
Ms. Algothany’s family is one in a rapidly growing influx of Syrian refugees — 99 percent of them Muslim — arriving in communities around the United States. Administration officials said on Friday that 8,000 Syrian refugees had been allowed into the United States since October, putting them on pace to surpass the goal of 10,000.
Through partnerships with the State Department and the Department of Health and Human Services, all of them receive assistance from nonprofit organizations that connect them to a local support network to help them find housing, register for health care and food assistance and enroll their children in school. The International Rescue Committee is one of nine nonprofit organizations helping refugees relocate and integrate into their new communities.
The increase reflects a quiet but intense push by the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, with substantial prodding from the White House, to radically speed up the pace at which Syrian refugees are placed in the United States. It appears likely to further inflame the political debate about refugees that has become a central theme of the presidential campaign. Mr. Trump has claimed that “thousands upon thousands” of Muslim refugees with a terrorist mind-set have been “pouring into our country” without proper security screening.
The administration was spurred to action by a refugee crisis whose dimensions were driven home to the public in September, when newspapers published a photograph of the drowned corpse of Alan Kurdi, a Syrian toddler whose body washed ashore in Turkey after he and his family were tossed from a raft while attempting to flee to Greece.
“We had so much pressure to bring Syrians, that we hadn’t done enough for that crisis,” said Anne C. Richard, the assistant secretary of state for population, migration and refugees, who said she had initially questioned whether the target of accepting 10,000 Syrians — part of an overall goal of resettling 85,000 refugees in the United States this year — was feasible.
The task involves a rigorous set of security screenings and other checks, and an increased effort by the nonprofit groups involved to find new homes for those who are accepted in the United States.
“We have people and groups in the United States who want us to bring many, many more refugees from around the world, and then we have people who say, ‘Don’t you dare bring a terrorist in,’” Ms. Richard said in an interview. She added: “It takes people and resources. The biggest challenge is to move faster without cutting corners on security.”
The Paris attacks in November intensified the scrutiny; one of the bombers was found to have had a Syrian passport. Governors in 31 states said they would not accept Syrian refugees, although in many cases they have not been able to bar them, and anti-refugee legislation was introduced in 19 states this year, according to the International Rescue Committee.
“I’m dismayed that refugees have become a political issue this campaign season — I’m really shocked by it,” Ms. Richard said. “It is a departure from the past, and could potentially harm the program.”
For now, it has not hindered the administration’s efforts quickly integrate a large new stream of Syrians into American communities.
In February, around the time that Ms. Algothany’s family got word they could apply to resettle in the United States, the administration began a three-month push to interview and process Syrian refugees in Jordan. Employees of the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security interviewed 12,000 applicants, flooding the pipeline with refugee applications. Operations also expanded in Istanbul, Beirut, Lebanon, and Erbil, Iraq to handle many more Syrian cases.
“We’ve actually added security checks to the process,” Jeh Johnson, the homeland security secretary, said this week. “What we have also added are a lot of resources to the process to meet the commitments that we have given the world refugee crisis.”
Leon Rodriguez, the director of the United States Customs and Immigration Service, said the vetting included what officials call a “Syrian enhanced review” involving fraud detection and national security units, as well as intelligence checks that include examination of social media. Seven percent of Syrian refugee applicants have failed the screenings and been denied entry, Mr. Rodriguez said on Friday, and an additional 13 percent were paused because of concerns about their credibility.
The nonprofit groups that help resettle refugees began to feel the impact. At their weekly Wednesday “allocation” meeting, where a representative from each group spends hours in a nondescript office conference room in Arlington, Va., across the Potomac River from the State Department, there was a spike in the number of Syrian cases they were being asked to accept.
The bulk of the Syrian refugees have resettled in Michigan
, according to figures released by the State Department, but some have ended up in all but a dozen states, from the Pacific Northwest to New England.
“We have seen a surge,” said Mamadou Sy, refugee program director at Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area, which has offices in Falls Church, Va. and Hyattsville, Md. “But what we have also noticed is a surge of phone calls from volunteers who want to help that is really very overwhelming, because the discourse out there has been very negative.”
At the International Rescue Committee’s resettlement office in Baltimore this week, the small waiting room was filled with Syrian families preparing to register for health care with the Maryland Department of Social Services and English classes at Baltimore City Community College. They also attended cultural or pre-employment training in small classrooms equipped with white boards, how-to fliers and task lists.
“This is where the realities begin to set in for the clients: that while they have certain rights and benefits, they also have a lot of responsibilities,” said Ruben Chandrasekar, executive director of the rescue committee’s Maryland programs, gesturing to an orientation classroom.
While Syrians had arrived in “a trickle” for most of the year, Mr. Chandrasekar said, that has changed dramatically in the last couple of months. “Now, they’re essentially taking over our caseload,” he said.
Mohammad al-Smadi, 34, who arrived in Baltimore in June with his wife and four young children, is part of the trend. It has been four years since he hid the children in a livestock van and fled with his wife from Dara’a, Syria, to Jordan
“It was my dream always to come to the United States,” Mr. Smadi said through an interpreter.
So he did not hesitate when he learned in February that his family could apply. American officials grilled him extensively during several interviews about “the tiniest details,” Mr. Al Smadi said, once calling him back for a second hourslong round of questioning because of a two-day discrepancy in the dates he had provided for his service in Syria’s military.
“We are hardworking people — we like to work and make our own living, and we don’t like to ask for aid,” Mr. Smadi said as his 7-month-old daughter squirmed on her belly on a table in front of him and his two other daughters and son played quietly nearby. “But there was no future for my children.”