September 19, 2016 | By Sara McElmurry

As World Leaders Meet on Refugees, Cities Welcome Newcomers

Syrian refugee Ahmad al Aboud and his family members, who will be resettled in the United States as part of a refugee admissions program, walk to board their plane at the Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, Jordan, April 6, 2016. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed.

Leaders from across the world will gather in the United States this week for two historic summits on migrants and refugees. The United Nations and President Obama will both host high-profile meetings designed to outline a global response to the more than 65 million people—roughly one in every 122 people worldwide—displaced from their homes. 

The United States, while often criticized for not doing more, just recently accepted its 10,000th Syrian refugee and continues to manage growing numbers of displaced Central American youth arriving on its southern border. With vocal resistance to refugees from US presidential candidates and state governors alike, the President will face challenges in rallying support around his goals to double global resettlement efforts and commit the United States to accepting 110,000 refugees in 2017. And analysts caution that the non-binding commitments expected out of the UN summit, while helpful in “setting the stage” for a global response to this issue, lack actionable outcomes.  

While the politics around migrants and refugees slowly get hammered out at the international level, the urgent business of resettlement is a wholly local and often messy affair. But local governments and community and faith-based organizations are more nimble than their federal counterparts in crafting innovative responses.

Chicago, with its long history as a gateway city for immigrants and refugees, provides a strong blueprint for a collaborative civic response to refugee resettlement. Chicago’s Office of New Americans has developed a 27-point plan to support newcomers in starting businesses, learning English, accessing healthcare, and engaging in civic life. The Chicago-based Heartland Alliance mobilizes volunteers in tangible tasks ranging from assembling furniture for newly arrived families to mentoring refugee youth in after-school programs, leveraging local human capital where federal supports fall short. Trailblazing community organizations such as Upwardly Global rally local professionals in helping skilled refugees rebuild their careers in the United States. And Chicago-based groups such as the National Immigrant Justice Center and Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights are leading national work in building a legal infrastructure to support refugees and child migrants. 

This local momentum is largely born out of humanitarian concern—but it is also slightly self-serving. 

At the local level, 10,000 newly settled refugees nationwide ceases to be a controversial number; instead, the figure represents new neighbors, co-workers, and classmates—a demographic lifeline for cities experiencing dramatic declines in their native-born populations. Chicago shed more than 6,000 residents last year alone, and other Midwestern cities such as Dayton, Detroit, Minneapolis, and St. Louis are losing population as well. Some of these places welcome newcomers with open arms. 

It is no surprise the mayors of these cities have supported President Obama’s continuous efforts to increase the numbers of refugees resettled in the United States, even as their state- and federal-level counterparts have been vocal in their resistance. As a region, the Midwest has seen unprecedented commitment from local leaders in building city-level programs to welcome newcomers in recent years. 

Illinois has received just over 2,500 refugees in 2016, ranking eighth in the country for refugee resettlement, according to data from the Refugee Processing Center. The Midwestern states of Michigan and Ohio ranked fifth and sixth respectively. 

Epitomizing Chicago’s energy and urgency around refugee resettlement, today more than a dozen community organizations, led by the National Immigrant Justice Center, will map out local collaboration strategies in a Chicago convening to be held concurrently with the UN negotiations. The group aims to articulate how local communities can welcome refugees and asylum seekers are ensure they can safely rebuild their lives. 

To be fair, Chicago, like other cities, struggles with managing dwindling resources and responding to local backlash and opposition. It has much to learn from other communities—such as Hamburg, Stockholm, and Toronto—grappling with how to support the growing number of people displaced across the globe. Yet cities overall are well positioned to share best practices and lead the global discussion on resettlement. 

As the UN and President Obama struggle to build an actionable global response in New York, they should take cues from the city-level work being done in places like Chicago. The City of Big Shoulders, like so many cities across the country—and the world—is rolling up its sleeves and getting it done. 

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs has explored international refugee policy and local resettlement efforts—review past programs as the world awaits outcomes from local and global convenings:

The Illegal: Ripped from the Headlines

Syria and the Global Refugee Crisis


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


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