America’s new Syrian refugees fear a closing door

In wake of Paris attacks, Michigan’s Muslim Americans resist anti-refugee backlash

Syrian American Rescue Network (SARN), a non-religious voluntary group that helps Syrian refugees in Michigan, has been advocating for between 3,000 and 5,000 new migrants to be resettled in the state. Video: Simon Carswell

 

Lujain Breijawi and her cousin Alaa Breijawi, both 24, sit in their rented home in a Detroit suburb in Michigan, as Alaa’s daughter Hind (4) plays behind them. They are refugees who escaped Syria’s bloody four-year- old conflict.

The women have, along with Alaa’s husband and her children, been in the US for two months. They are among 170 people who have arrived in Michigan since April, and just 2,000 who have been resettled in the US since the war began in 2011.

The conflict has killed more than 200,000 people and turned more than four million Syrians into refugees. One in every two Syrians has been displaced.

“We had our own lives. We would have never thought that we would have to leave,” Lujain says. “What changed was the situation became unbearable. It became about life or death.”

She has left behind her parents and five siblings near a refugee camp in Jordan where she and her cousin lived for three years.

Lujain was told when she went through resettlement, a rigorous process that took her more than a year, that her family would be able to travel on after her. She is still waiting for news of their applications.

“We were looking for safety and security and respect. We heard that in the United States there is a lot of respect for individuals,” she says.

The concern for her and the other Syrian refugees in Michigan, which has one of the biggest populations of Arab Americans in the US, is that their families will not be able to join them in the wake of the deadly attacks by Islamic State militants in Paris that killed 130 people.

Politicians are trying to make it more difficult for Syrian refugees to relocate to the US. The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to pass a Bill that would set much tougher screening requirements for refugees from Syria and Iraq before they can enter the US. The White House has said that President Barack Obama would veto the Bill if it landed on his desk.

The Bill, passed with the support of almost 50 Democrats, came days after governors in 27 states, mostly Republican and including Michigan’s Rick Snyder, objected to Obama’s plans to resettle 10,000 Syrians next year.

Knee-jerk reaction

Rasha Basha, president of the Syrian American Rescue Network, a voluntary group that helps refugees in Michigan, has been advocating for between 3,000 and 5,000 of the 10,000 new migrants to be resettled in the state.

“As a Muslim American who has lived here for 28 years and raised children here, we have a vested interest in the safety of this country,” Basha says. “We don’t care if they want more restrictions. Closing the doors is not a solution.”

She is standing in a warehouse in a Detroit suburb filled with furniture, household appliances, toys and second-hand winter coats donated by the local community for the refugees.

The furniture in the Breijawis’ apartment has come from here. Lujain’s last home, in Homs, was destroyed, along with the rest of their street, after they left Syria on a dangerous car journey to Jordan. Their driver was killed by a sniper while transporting the next family out.

Before they fled, her uncle was killed in crossfire as he returned from visiting relatives in hospital. Lujain had stopped attending law classes in the local university because her classmates were being kidnapped and raped.

“It had become our daily norm,” she says, of the dangers they faced in Syria. “It was worse than bad,” Alaa adds. “No matter how much we describe it, it’s not going to describe the situation in Syria.”

Before they can travel to the US, refugees from Syria and Iraq must undergo repeated interviews – individually and with family members – by agencies, including the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, the FBI and the US department of homeland security. If there are any discrepancies in their answers, their application is rejected. The process can take up to two years.

Supporters of the Syrian refugees say that it is easier for migrants from Iraq and Syria to get into Europe than into the US. They point out that vetting procedures for other visa programmes and the visa waivers for European tourists needs to be improved, not that for the refugee resettlement programme.

“I don’t know what more the federal government can do to pre-screen refugees. They are the most vetted population ever to step foot in the United States,” says Jeralda Hattar, director of immigration and refugee services for Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan.

Lujain was asked question such as whether she had any political affiliations or ever attended protests or carried arms. “The idea that a terrorist could come through that tight security is not something I could see happening because the documents are all verified by the vetting process. They double and triple-check everything,” she says.

Obama, on an overseas visit this week, criticised Republicans for objecting to his resettlement plan and their anti-refugee rhetoric after the Paris attacks. He called it “political posturing” and complained that an “only Christians” requirement was “offensive”, counter to American values and could be used by Islamic State, also known as Isis, as a “potential recruitment tool”.

Fearmonger

Akkad, a Muslim who was born in the US and who lived in Syria for nine years before returning to Michigan in 2002, objects to politicians linking the Paris attacks with Islam and the wider Muslim population.

“If we are going to generalise that line of thinking, then does that mean the Ku Klux Klan represent all white Christians?” she asks.

She refuses to call the militant group by their name, preferring “Non Islamic State” as they don’t represent her religion. She believes the Syrian passport found on a suicide bomber in Paris was a deliberate attempt by Isis to drive a wedge between the West and refugees seeking asylum in Europe and the US.

“It is ironic because the refugees have become a scapegoat for the exact type of terror they are trying to escape,” says Akkad, sitting in the Shatila Lebanese bakery in Dearborn.

After preparing chicken shawarma in a restaurant in another Detroit suburb, Wasim Alawa (30) says he dreams of owning a restaurant some day. He left Homs in 2012 and moved to Michigan with his wife and two daughters two months ago.

While awaiting resettlement, their nine-month-old son died in a Jordanian refugee camp from an illness that could have been easily treated.

The fear of suicide attackers among Syrian refugees in the US is “unfounded”, he says; these people have “troubled pasts, have issues” that would be discovered in the resettlement vetting process.

“Me, as a family man – why would I trek half-way across the world to come here only to blow myself up and leave my wife and children behind?” he asks. “I am here to start a new life.”

Alaa Breijawi wants her children to have good education and her husband to make a decent living in the US so they can live good lives.

“We left for our children because we are looking for security and safety.”

Her cousin Lujain hopes “the door of safety” that refugees are coming through doesn’t get closed because of security concerns.

“These are people who are fleeing war – we don’t want to see another war,” she says.

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