New York, US – Hussam Al Roustom looks tired. He escaped the war in Syria in March 2013, with his wife Suha and their two small children. They fled from their hometown of Homs with little more than the clothes they wore.
“I didn’t want to leave my country, but it wasn’t safe for my children any more. Missiles and shells dropped on houses, people couldn’t get enough food, then medicine stopped coming to our area,” says Hussam, whose seven-year-old son Wesam has autism.
So the Al Roustoms and a handful other families drove across Syria in a crowded pick-up truck until they got close to the Jordanian border. From there, they trekked for four hours through the Syrian desert into Jordan and finally found safety in the Zaatari refugee camp.
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The Al Roustom family is among the 4.3 million Syrians who have fled the country since the outbreak of the war in 2011. They are fleeing air strikes, barrel bombs, clashes between government forces, rebels and armed groups, kidnappings, arrests and religious persecution. So far, according to Amnesty International, 220,000 people have lost their lives in the conflict.
A cold welcome
After two years of living in overcrowded camps in Jordan and months of interviews and security checks, 36-year-old Hussam and his family were granted refugee status in the United States.
In June, they arrived in New Jersey to begin their new lives. But they didn’t exactly receive the warm welcome they had hoped for – at least, not from the politicians.
In what is now the largest refugee crisis since World War II, President Barack Obama has agreed to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year. But, in light of the recent attacks in Paris, Beirut, Baghdad and Ankara, the US refugee resettlement programme for Syrians appears to be in danger.
The attacks in Paris, in particular, in which 130 people were killed, have triggered a heated debate in the US about refugees and fears of an attack on US soil, with Republican presidential candidates and dozens of governors calling for Syrian refugees to be turned away for security reasons.
Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey – where the Al Roustoms now live – has said that not even “five-year-old orphans” should be allowed into the country.
And, last Thursday, the House of Representatives approved a bill that would suspend the resettlement of Syrian refugees until the director of the FBI, the director of national intelligence and the homeland security secretary all certify that each refugee poses no security risk.
It is an approach that some believe betrays “American values”.
‘Dividing the world’
Syrian refugees are “fleeing precisely the type of senseless slaughter that happened in Paris,” a White House spokespersonsaid, adding, “To slam the door in their faces, to decide not to help when we know that we can help, would be a betrayal of our deepest values as Americans”.
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Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state, believes that anti-Islamic fear-mongering and a rhetoric that vilifies refugees only furthers the cause of groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). It is a sentiment Obama has also voiced.
“Our enemies want to divide the world between Muslims and non-Muslims. By making Syrian refugees the enemy, we are playing into their hands,” said Albright. “I can’t imagine fleeing from terrorism and violence only to be told I am too much of a security threat.”
The US is a nation of immigrants that has historically provided shelter to hundreds of thousands of refugees from around the world, added Albright, who came to the US with her family as a refugee from Czechoslovakia in 1948.
“I do know what it’s like to leave your home and travel half way around the world seeking refuge,” she said.
An arduous process
Refugees currently face 18 to 24 months of thorough vetting before a decision is made on whether to allow them into the US.
It is an arduous process with little chance of success, and begins with the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, selecting those people it deems most vulnerable – including, for example, female heads of households who have been tortured or require some form of advanced medical treatment. The UNHCR then refers those applications to the US, which is the agency’s biggest financial donor.
After that, the refugee must go through interviews, fingerprinting, medical evaluations and an interagency security screening process.
For Syrian applicants, there is an additional layer of security called the Syria Enhanced Review. Five government agencies – Homeland Security, the National Counterterrorism Center, the State Department, the Department of Defense and the FBI – work together to investigate each Syrian applicant.
The refugee vetting process is “the most … stringent security process for anyone entering the US,” explained Alejandro Mayorkas, the deputy secretary of homeland security, who also came to the US as a refugee from Cuba.
“It would be nearly impossible for someone to rig the system,” added Jen Smyers, the associate director for immigration and refugee policy at the Church World Service. “Also, less than one percent of the world’s refugees ever have an opportunity to be resettled.”
So far, 2,034 Syrian refugees have arrived in the US since 2011, half of whom are children. According to the US government, none of them has been arrested or removed on terrorism charges.
But that is just a fraction of the number taken in by many other countries. Lebanon, for example, a country of only 4.5 million people, now has nearly 1.1 million Syrian refugees – which means that almost a quarter of its population are refugees.
More than 230,000 Syrians have applied for asylum across the European Union. Almost half of those applications were made in Germany.
‘I am not a terrorist’
It was the Church World Service, which is one of nine US resettlement agencies, that helped the Al Roustoms get into the US.
In June, after multiple interviews and security checks, the Al Roustoms stepped off a plane in Newark, New Jersey.
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Now, Hussam works overnight at a bakery in Ridgefield and attends English classes during the day. His children go to school.
“My children couldn’t go to school for four years,” he says.
The family lives in a three-bedroom apartment in Jersey City, an ethnically diverse area with a large Arab population. Their home has been furnished with donated furniture.
“People have been very kind, generous and welcoming to us,” Hussam says, with just the trace of a smile on his face.
But, back in Syria, Hussam owned a supermarket. He had a life in Homs – friends, family and neighbours; people he loved.
Now, his family members are scattered across the Middle East and Europe.
He had hoped that his extended family would one day be able to join him in the US, but in the current climate, that seems unlikely.
So, for now, he must focus on building a new life in the US for him, his wife and his two children.
“In Syria, the fighting continues, bombs are dropped every day, people die, terrorist organisations cause destruction … At the same time Syrians are dying trying to escape to Europe and they drown in the sea.
“I came here to live a life of dignity and I feel lucky that we escaped. But I worry about the future of all Syrians,” he says.
Hussam wants Americans to understand that he and other Syrian refugees pose no threat to them. It is those threats that they themselves are trying to flee, leaving their homes, possessions and, in many instances, loved ones, behind in the process.
“I am not a terrorist,” he says wearily. “Syrians are not terrorists.”