McClatchy: As refugees ostracized, a Syrian family finds peace in the U.S.

BY ELEANOR MUELLER

BALTIMORE  For Damascus resident Ali, life in Syria was an existence torn between two extremes.

On the one hand, things were going well. Ali owned his own home, a car and even a furniture shop, which provided enough income for a comfortable life. He had a beautiful wife, five smart daughters, and was expecting his first son.

On the other hand, there was the war.

Tanks patrolled the family’s neighborhood, while airstrikes rained down. Soldiers fighting in the streets often sent bullets whizzing indiscriminately, making it unsafe to walk outside. Ali’s daughters became so sick from the stress that he no longer could afford to send them to the doctor.

But the last straw didn’t come until August 2012. Ali’s wife – Aaminah – had just given birth in a Damascus hospital, and they had left the baby in the maternity ward out of fear their own neighborhood was unsafe. Then, a week later, they received the news – the worst any parents could imagine.

The hospital had been attacked, the target of a government airstrike. The doctors had fled for their lives, and the building had collapsed. Their newborn son – their beautiful baby boy – had suffocated in the wreckage and died.

“We buried him, and we decided to leave,” Ali said through an interpreter.

They are among the 1,850 or so Syrians who have relocated to the United States since the conflict began. More are expected, or were, until Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris. The Islamic State has claimed credit, and one of the dead attackers had a Syrian passport near his body.

That has led politicians in the United States to talk of throwing up barriers; a growing number of governors say they’ll allow no more Syrians into their states. Two Republican presidential candidates, Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, have said the U.S. should focus its efforts on admitting Christians. Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders hasn’t said how many refugees should be allowed.

President Barack Obama responded Monday by saying Syrian refugees would still be welcomed. “Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values,” he said.

The debate in the United States has been a long time building, with Syrians fleeing war over the past several years but gaining more attention in recent months. In the fall of 2012, shortly after their son’s death, Ali and Aaminah – whose names have been changed to protect the safety of their relatives still in Syria – loaded 13 of their family members into a five-person car in Damascus and crossed the border into Lebanon. There they lived in poverty for a year, forced to sell their food rations – provided by the United Nations – just to pay rent.

“The situation there was even worse than the situation in Syria,” Ali said.

When a U.N. representative offered to recommend them for refugee status, the couple jumped at the chance. Following an application process that spanned 18 months, the family found themselves in Baltimore, a total of $7 in hand.

That was 10 months ago. Since then, Ali has found a job as a truck driver for UnderArmour, which pays enough that he no longer needs cash assistance. His five daughters are enrolled in school, and he and his wife are learning English. On his off days, Ali loads the family into a 2005 Honda Odyssey – bought with loans he’s already paid back – and they explore their new home, taking day trips to Maryland, Washington and beyond.

Their latest excursion? To a Virginia airport, where they got out, took pictures and “were happy,” Ali said.

“I’m happy because we’re safe,” Ali said through an interpreter. “We have a good life, and we’re safe. Safety is the most important thing for us.”

Looking forward

As the White House commits to taking in more Syrian refugees, communities across the country are faced with concerns that the U.S. government lacks the resources to properly vet and financially support the higher volume of newcomers.

Although the Syrian conflict has forced an estimated 12 million from their homes – 4 million of whom have fled abroad – the United States admitted only 1,682 Syrian refugees in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, according to the State Department.

That number is poised to increase dramatically. Obama recently pledged that the United States would be welcoming a total of 85,000 refugees this fiscal year, 10,000 of whom would be Syrian.

Like those who came before them, the new arrivals are to be placed across the country by the nine refugee resettlement agencies tasked with finding homes for them.

“Ten thousand Syrians may sound like a lot of people, but they’ll be divided across the entire United States,” said Matthew Soerens, a spokesman for refugee resettlement agency World Relief.

The 1,850 or so Syrian refugees admitted since the conflict began are distributed among 130 cities. Most of these are medium-size and affordable places to live, with a pre-existing refugee community. Boise, Idaho, for example, has welcomed more Syrians than Los Angeles and New York combined.

Last month Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., called for the administration to admit 100,000 Syrian refugees, calling the White House’s promise “too modest.”

Security concerns

But others find the figure too high.

Twenty percent of likely U.S. voters reported supporting Obama’s commitment, according to a September 2015 telephone survey by Rasmussen Reports. But nearly half, 49 percent, said they want the government to allow no refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries into the United States.

A commonly voiced objection is that the risks associated with resettling refugees of a Middle East country are too much for the United States to bear.

“Most voters are still worried,” said Daryl Grisgraber, a senior advocate for the Middle East for the advocacy group Refugees International. “It’s not a realistic fear, but it’s so easy to get people’s attention by using that topic as a hook for the dialogue you want to have.”

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, in September introduced a bill that looks to “rein in” the administration’s plan to admit more Syrian refugees, telling Fox News he “can’t support a policy that would allow a jihadist pipeline into the United States.” And on Monday, he sent Obama a letter asking him to temporarily suspend admission of Syrian refugees.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said the connection drawn between refugees and terrorism is not only erroneous, but harmful.

“There are those equating Islam with terrorism, and it’s a false narrative but also a very dangerous narrative, because it perpetuates this story of closing our doors,” said Murphy, who recently wrote a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee requesting emergency funding to admit more refugees. Refugees, he said, just want a shot at a normal life.

“It’s important to remember that the Syrian refugees being resettled in the United States are fleeing exactly the kind of terror we saw unfold on the streets of Paris on Friday evening,” said Lucy Carrigan, a senior officer of International Rescue Committee.

In fact, some say admitting refugees can even help combat the spread of radicalism.

“One of the best things we can do is take in vulnerable people who are victims of that extremism and give them better options,” Grisgraber said.

The nation’s refugee admissions process is long and multifaceted, spanning an average of 18 to 24 months and multiple government agencies.

Those fleeing their homelands must seek referral to one of nine State Department-funded resettlement support centers worldwide, which are responsible for gathering extensive data on each candidate in preparation for security screening. This is carried out in part by officers of Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, who help conduct analyses of their biographies, biometric checks of their fingerprints and photos, in-person interviews and even more investigation.

“Refugees are the most security-vetted group,” Carrigan said. “Refugee resettlement is probably the hardest way to get to America besides swimming the Atlantic Ocean.”

When asked whether she thought someone undeserving of refugee status could ever pass this process, Aaminah, the refugee living in Baltimore, shook her head emphatically.

“It’s impossible,” Aaminah said. “It’s too complicated a process.”

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