New York City, United States – In a sign of just how awful the situation in Syria is, the United States has quietly extended Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for about 7,000 undocumented Syrians living there since August 2016.
The administration of President Donald Trump has been trying to reduce pathways for regular as well as irregular immigration, drastically cutting the number of refugees allowed into the country. Such moves have included eliminating domestic abuse as a reason for seeking asylum and ending TPS for Hondurans and Guatemalans who have been allowed to work in the US since the 1990s.
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But in an announcement that bucked the trend, Kevin McAleenan, acting secretary of homeland security, announced last week that the ongoing conflict in Syria and its “extraordinary conditions” justified letting this group remain for at least another 18 months.
The pictures coming out of Syria’s northwest Idlib province lately have been particularly gut-wrenching. Last week, Al Jazeera reported how a five-year-old girl died in hospital after valiantly holding onto her younger sister to prevent her from falling down a bomb-hit building.
Idlib, home to three million people, one-third of whom are children, has for months been under siege by a Russia-backed government offensive that has also targeted hospitals and residential areas.
Given the horrors back home, you’d expect Syrian asylum seeker Ahed Festuk to be happy to be able to continue to live and work in the US legally.
But the 31-year-old’s feelings are much more complex.
“You should be grateful. And you should feel like you are the lucky person to be here when your people are under bombardment daily,” she says, before quickly lamenting, however, about her movement restrictions.
She can’t visit her family in Turkey, or do humanitarian work in Syria. “It’s kind of a big prison,” she says.
‘I couldn’t see any more blood’
Festuk was invited to give a talk in New York in 2015, after appearing in a documentary about women activists back home. She had been among thousands of young Syrians who took to the streets to call for more inclusive democracy and wanted to talk about her generation’s aspirations with US politicians.
But what in 2011 had started as a protest movement escalated into a civil war, and she decided to apply for asylum in 2015 at the encouragement of friends.
It wasn’t an easy decision, as she had stayed behind in her home city of Aleppo, volunteering in the local hospital after her family fled and became refugees. Pictures from that time show her cleaning the forehead of a man covered in blood and holding a distraught little girl to his chest.
The wounded were too numerous to remember, but another photo shows people she knows gathered casually in the same hospital setting.
“That was a party actually, after a long day of blood,” she says, smiling wistfully as she points to two young men.
“He’s dead now. So is he.”
She pauses and tells me about another friend, someone she describes as a superhero who was killed when the hospital itself was bombed. After that, she stopped volunteering in hospitals.
“I couldn’t see any more blood,” she says.
Desire to return
In New York, Festuk works for a humanitarian agency which operates out of donated office space in central Manhattan.
It wasn’t long after she came to New York, however, that Aleppo came under bombardment – much like what Idlib, the rebels’ last stronghold in Syria, has been facing in recent months.
While the Syrian government claimed to target “terrorists”, Festuk’s friends were living under attack and she lived the nightmare with them online, sleeping and waking as if she were in their time zone.
At one point, she took a taxi to the airport, tormented by what was happening but powerless to stop it.
“I didn’t know what I should do. I went to Times Square like a crazy person with some pictures to show.”
Festuk blames former US President Barack Obama for failing to enforce his self-declared red line in Syria, when he looked the other way after the Syrian military used chemical weapons against its own people.
She believes that Obama’s inaction emboldened Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to continue committing war crimes against the Syrian people.
She waves off a discussion about Trump’s immigration policy, pointing out that 14 million Syrians have left the country because of the war and most, like her, just want to go home.
The TPS extension does not come close to a long-term solution for her or any of her fellow Syrian refugees. The aid agency Oxfam estimates that there are another 7,000 Syrians in the US alone who are not recognised by the government because they arrived after the deadline in August 2016.
“We are going back when this crazy regime stops killing us,” said Festuk. “But no one has the power to stop him. Or nobody cares.”
Until then, there is no going back for her. There is no going home.