The following editorial first appeared in the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman:
At this moment, thousands of refugees are fleeing some of the worst places on Earth — Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, among others — and streaming into Europe in search of relief. These refuges are crossing dangerous seas and taking massive risks to leave their homes because the places they used to live have become unlivable, torn apart by the ravages of war.
Desperate throngs of refugees are flooding various countries, and much of Europe is now being forced to cope with a flood of humanity unlike any the continent has seen since the end of World War II.
This crisis might seem like a far-off event that has little to do with Alaska or the Mat-Su Valley, but that’s far from the case. As a member of the global community, the United States has as much obligation as any other country — some would argue more of an obligation — to help these unfortunate souls. Recently, President Obama announced he would increase the number of Syrian refugees allowed into the country, and this is a good step toward doing our part to ease the crisis.
According to Catholic Social Services, the state welcomed 185 refugees from a variety of countries in 2015. That’s not enough — not by a long shot.
Although the U.S. State Department is responsible for assigning refugees to various cities and states for resettlement, there’s nothing stopping Alaska Gov. Bill Walker from requesting more be sent here. Such a request would send a clear message that Alaskans want to do their part to help.
Blessed with a remarkable amount of resources, Alaska is in a unique position to do more to help refugees find a better life. The state has the lowest population density of any U.S. state (just 1.2 people per square mile), a massive reserve of cash (there’s over $50 billion in the state’s Permanent Fund) and natural resources such as fish, timber and hydrocarbons that dwarf those in other states. These advantages make the state a perfect place for refugees to resettle, and Alaskans should begin pushing immediately for more to be brought here.
The Mat-Su Valley itself has a proud tradition of welcoming new settlers to the region. In the 1930s, the Valley was colonized by Midwestern farmers desperate to leave Depression-era towns in search of a better life. Those original colonists have much in common with the refugees of today in that they only wanted to find a place where their families could live, work and prosper.
According to Catholic Social Services, most refugees who come to Alaska are highly productive members of society. The agency reports 90 percent of employable refugees in its resettlement program were gainfully employed and that within their first year in Alaska, 89 percent of refugee families needed no public assistance.
Along with bringing hard-working new members to our community, more refugees could also give the Valley a much-needed injection of racial and ethnic diversity. Although much of Alaska is quite diverse, the Mat-Su is not, with nearly 84 percent of our residents identifying as Caucasian. Additionally, the Valley’s population is made up of just 3.4 percent foreign-born residents, compared to 7 percent for Alaska as a whole. New immigrants would expose the Valley to new cultures, languages and traditions that could enhance our region’s social and ethnic character.
Alaska has a long and proud tradition of being a welcoming place for new residents; aside from Alaska Natives, most of us arrived here either as recent transplants from other states or as members of families who moved here within the past 100 years.
A decision by Alaska leaders to request more refugees be sent here would send a clear message that our state is eager to open its doors to the desperate and would acknowledge that our people are willing to do their part to ease a crisis that’s the responsibility of all global citizens.
It’s the Alaskan thing to do.