KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Pushing back against efforts to bar Syrian refugees from resettling in the U.S., President Barack Obama vowed Saturday that his country will be a welcoming place for millions fleeing violence around the world “as long as I’m president.”
Obama commented Saturday at a learning center in the Malaysian capital that serves the poor, including some refugees. He met with boys and girls wearing crisp white and black uniforms and neckties as they sat at tables and worked on painting and puzzle projects.
Obama said the youngsters “represent the opposite of terror, the opposite of the type of despicable violence we saw in Mali and Paris.”
Most of the children the president met with are Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group. Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar to escape persecution by the country’s Buddhist majority, with many ending up in Malaysia, where Obama was attending a regional economic summit.
Obama noted that the world is currently focused on the humanitarian tragedy in Syria, where years of civil war have forced millions to flee to other countries to escape the bloodshed. But he said the world must not forget about some 60 million people who have been displaced around the globe.
Last week’s Paris attacks have led U.S. lawmakers to seek to halt or delay the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the U.S. out of concern that terrorists could try to slip in with them and carry out similar attacks. Obama has rejected that idea and pledged to veto any bill sent to him to block Syrians from entering.
Speaking of the children he had just met with, Obama said: “Anybody who had a chance to see those kids, hopefully you understood the degree to which they’re just like our kids. They deserve love and stability and protection.”
He said more and more countries are recognizing that they need to do more, vowing that “as long as I’m president we are going to keep stepping up.”
The refugees Obama met with have all been cleared to come to the U.S. and have been assigned to specific cities, the White House said.
Obama will confront the refugee debate even more directly when he returns to Washington on Monday. One of his first orders of business will be a White House meeting Tuesday with French President Francois Hollande, who is vowing war against the Islamic State group, which claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, as European nations tighten border controls out of fear that terrorists could strike again.
President Obama smiles with a 16-year-old refugee girl from Myanmar that was subjected to human trafficking and will now be moving to the United States, following a tour of the Dignity for Children Foundation in Kuala Lumpur.
The Foundation serves more than 1,000 poor and vulnerable children, many of them refugees, in a specialized learning environment to help develop children academically and socially to empower them to become productive members of society.
President Obama speaks alongside former refugees.
President Obama speaks with children between the ages of seven and nine as he tours the Dignity for Children Foundation.