Our View: Celebrate, Stand with Erie's Refugees

June 19th, 2019, 12:00 AM

New Americans strengthen Erie.

Our heartfelt condolences go out to the family of 68-year-old Selman Ferati, who died on June 10. We also thank his loved ones for recalling in the notice of his passing, details of his journey from Kosovo, riven by genocide, to Erie, where his family resettled as refugees in 1999. This newspaper had detailed in past stories the family's arrival and the harrowing ethnic violence they witnessed.

Here, as his family recalled in his obituary, Ferati encouraged his six children "to take advantage of their newfound freedoms, to 'dream more, learn more, do more and become more.'"

That exhortation distills the promise implicit in our American way of life and serves as a needed reminder of the compassion, global perspective and nuance that should guide our nation's immigration policy. The U.S. has not always lived up to its inherent promise on the global stage. But it realizes its best self when it offers a safe haven and new freedom to human souls fleeing traumatized regions. In doing so, it reaps the reward of the productive lives new Americans like the Feratis build here.

Erie celebrates that reality on Thursday on World Refugee Day. In Perry Square from 11:30 a.m. until 1 p.m., refugees, including Ansumana Gbembo, a tailor who fled Sierra Leone, will relate personal experiences. Traditional African dance will be taught and music from Erie's new Americans' native countries will be played. A ticketed observance follows Thursday evening at SafeNet's Big Backyard Garden.

About 2,600 refugees from an astounding 75 different countries have resettled in Erie in just the past five years.

The influx during that period and before has helped shore up the city's draining population and fuel its economy. Without new Americans, Erie's population might have dropped as low as 80,000, as Mayor Joe Schember's chief of staff, Renee Lamis, told Stateline.org in April. They now make up 20 percent of Erie's population, according to Schember.

Celebration of this vital new stream of residents plays out against a sobering backdrop. Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. in 2019 cut its annual refugee admissions ceiling to a historic low, 30,000. In Erie, just a few years ago, 600 to 700 new individuals arrived yearly. In 2018, the number dropped to about 175, according to the International Institute of Erie. The national monthly rate of admissions historically averaged 6,500 refugees, but now stands at about 2,250.

That approach is wrong in spirit, given the impact on the world's most vulnerable people. Practically speaking, it abjectly fails the needs of Erie and American cities like it that are working so hard to continue to be places, as Ferati understood, where people are free to dream, learn, do and become more.

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