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November 19, 2015

What happens to orphan refugees in America?

Philadelphia refugee organization explains how U.S. takes in unaccompanied minors

When asked in a recent interview whether he’d accepted Syrian orphans under the age of five to come to the United States as refugees, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said no.

“They have no family here. How are we going to care for these folks?” asked Christie, according to the Daily Caller.

Janet Panning is in a position to answer that question. She’s the program director at Philadelphia’s Lutheran Children and Family Service, which runs a refugee resettlement program in cooperation with the U.S. Department of State.

Her organization serves refugees of all nations and ethnicities, connecting them to jobs, housing and government assistance. It is also part of a larger network, the National Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, that helps unaccompanied refugee children find foster families.

“We’re always out there looking for people who are willing to be foster parents. … We always have people in the works,” she said.


First, Panning wanted to clear up a common misconception about refugees: they’re not the people you’ve seen on TV, getting shuttled from country to country in Europe. Refugees don’t get to step one foot inside the U.S. until they’ve gone through a multiyear screening process.

“What people perhaps don’t understand is that the people we see on TV that are fleeing into Europe are not the ones in line for a refugee interview,” Panning said. “The people who are getting refugee interviews are ones who fled during the Arab Spring to Lebanon or Jordan. That was in 2011 or 2012. So they’ve been sitting there in the refugee camps, undergoing levels of scrutiny (people) don’t even envision.”

Refugees who escape to another country register with the United Nations. Out of around four million Syrian refugees worldwide, the U.N. has so far submitted 22,427 of them to the U.S. for consideration. The United States, in turn, has accepted 2,174 Syrian refugees since 2012, the Guardian reported.

In comparison, the U.N. says there are around 1.8 million refugees in Turkey, 1.2 million in Lebanon and 600,000 in Jordan.

As PhillyVoice published before, refugee applicants go through a long vetting process, which includes an interview with the Department of Homeland Security, fingerprint checks and medical exams.

“Any inconsistencies in the stories are checked. If there’s any flag at all, people don’t travel,” Panning explained.

Once people are cleared for travel, they are matched with agencies like Lutheran Children and Family Service. So far, the organization has helped eight Syrian families, consisting of 39 people, resettle in the Lehigh Valley.


Both the Lutherans and the Catholics have national agencies with networks that provide foster care for unaccompanied minors. Once a child is identified, said Panning, “We scour our offices nationally to see who has a placement.”

The child does not come to the U.S. unless there is a family waiting for them already. Because of the chaos of war, however, these minors cannot be adopted.

“These children can never be adopted because it’s always possible their relatives or parents can turn up,” Panning said. In Pennsylvania, children can stay in foster care until age 18, or up to age 21 if they are in school or employed.

When a family comes to America, Lutheran Service picks them up from the airport and helps them find an apartment, make health appointments, find jobs and enroll their children in school.

The government gives Lutheran Services $1,125 per person for the first two months. Welfare benefits after that can include cash assistance, medical assistance and food stamps, but the exact amount depends on the composition of the family and how soon the adults can find a job. Panning says that 80 percent of the families are employed within the first six months.

Despite the debate over accepting Syrian refugees, Lutheran Services has received “an outpouring of support from multiple groups,” noted Panning, and not just fellow Lutherans. She even got an email from one person who wrote: “I’m an atheist; I just want to help.”

There are many ways to help: donating to the organization, co-sponsoring a family, volunteering as a tutor or packing a refugee welcome box. You can even become a foster parent, and become the family of a child who doesn't have one anymore.