On World Refugee Day, Philadelphia marks achievements and challenges

Mayor Jim Kenney speaks to a gathering of the Philadelphia Regional Refugee Providers’ Collaborative at City Hall. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Mayor Jim Kenney speaks to a gathering of the Philadelphia Regional Refugee Providers’ Collaborative at City Hall. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

On World Refugee Day, advocates recognized the more than 65 million people forced to leave their countries under threat of persecution.

In a speech marking the occasion Monday, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney acknowledged that for refugees, fears don’t end once they reach a safe haven. He recalled meeting a group of Indonesian refugees in South Philadelphia back in 2003.

“They were getting their cars stolen or getting stuck up in their stores, and they refused to call the police because they were afraid that any contact with the police would result in them getting turned over to the immigration officials,” Kenney said, noting the situation is similar for many undocumented immigrants living in the city today. 

While praising Philadelphia’s efforts to be a sanctuary for immigrants and refugees, Kenney also reflected on the city’s history of religious intolerance — specifically, toward the Irish, many of them Roman Catholics, who fled to America during the Great Famine in the mid-1800s.

“Two Catholic churches were burned to the ground in 1844 — St. Michael’s in Kensington and St. Augustin’s in Old City,” Kenney said. “They tried to burn down St. Philip Neri, but the Pennsylvania guard had gotten there by then and I think seven or nine guardsmen were killed in the running gun battles because the bloody hand of the pope was going to ruin America.

“Sound familiar? Some guy’s talking about Muslims now as opposed to Catholics back then,” he said, taking a shot at Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has called for banning Muslims entering the country.

“I’m not going to allow anyone, Donald Trump or anyone else, to badmouth our folks because we, no matter what the rest of this country does and we hope they finally wise up, here in Philadelphia, it’s going to be a sanctuary for people who need protection,” he said.

According to the Nationalities Service Center, a Center City-based resettlement agency, about 1,300 refugees resettled in Philadelphia during the 2015-2016 fiscal year, including 60 Syrians fleeing that country’s civil war. For its part, the NSC resettled about 500 of the refugees, up from 358 the prior budget year.

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