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'If everyone could meet a Syrian refugee, there would no longer be this fear'

© AFP | Syrian refugee Ameer Alrife stands in front of his parents and community leaders in Chicago, Illinois.

Text by Sophie PILGRIM , in New Jersey

Latest update : 2015-12-04

Despite attempts by American conservatives to block Syrian refugees from resettling in the country, families fleeing the four-year civil war continue to find refuge in the US, with determined aid workers and federal law both on their side.

The most recent example was a family of seven, who arrived late Monday in the New Jersey town of Paterson – despite a pledge by Republican Governor Chris Christie two weeks ago to ban Syrians, “even orphans under five,” from relocating to the state.

Christie is one of 31 governors who pledged to stop resettling Syrians over alleged security concerns following the November 13 Paris attacks, in which one of the assailants may have posed as a Syrian refugee. Six days after the attacks, 289 representatives in the lower house of Congress voted in favour of a bill that would make it almost impossible for those fleeing the war to settle in the US.

For some of the few Syrians who have been admitted to the country since the conflict broke out in 2011 (only 2,234 so far, or 0.0005 percent of the 4.2 million officially displaced), the controversy is not only distressing, but mind-boggling.

Speaking to FRANCE 24 at a refugee centre in Jersey City, Hussam Al Roustom, a father of two from the Syrian city of Homs, painstakingly detailed his own ordeal in trying to reach the US after fleeing Syria in 2013, when he found himself unable to provide his one-year-old daughter with milk and his four-year-old autistic son with medicine.

Hussam Al Roustom, a Syrian refugee who arrived in New Jersey in June 2015, at the Church World Service centre in Jersey City. © Sophie Pilgrim, FRANCE 24.

“Life was extremely hard in Syria, and then it was even harder in refugee camps,” he said, speaking through a translator. “I couldn’t work, because Jordan made it illegal for Syrians. There was never enough food. My children went for years without going to school, without being in parks or living their childhood.”

Al Roustom and his family spent two years in camps in Jordan while they were stringently screened by several UN and US agencies – including the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, and the departments of Homeland, State and Defense – before finally being accepted by the United States Refugee Admissions Program.

Today, with a job at a bakery and both his daughter and his son, now three and seven, enrolled in school, Al Roustom says “life is really looking up”.

He seemed dumbfounded by the suggestion that people like his family could be plotting to do harm to the United States.

“We are not terrorists – we are the ones who are fleeing war,” he said, visibly frustrated. “It's quick to paint a brush on the whole Syrian population. I would hope that the international community doesn’t make hasty decisions, that they consider all options.”

Playing into Islamic State hands

Al Roustom’s hope is not entirely hopeless. Amid the clamour of election-warped voices, a growing number of alarmed Republicans are joining fellow Democrats in countering the anti-refugee movement, stressing that it is not only misguided, but dangerous.

A letter published on Tuesday written by a group of national security experts – including prominent conservatives such as former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and retired general David Petraeus – urged lawmakers not to play into the hands of extremist groups.

"Refugees are victims, not perpetrators, of terrorism," the signatories argued. "Categorically refusing to take them only feeds the narrative of [the Islamic State group] that there is a war between Islam and the West, that Muslims are not welcome in the United States and Europe, and that the [Islamic State] caliphate is their true home."

Somebody who has been trying to convey that message for years, Syrian-American Zane Kuseybi, is fed up with what he calls misinformation about Syrian refugees. Along with his wife Lana, the couple volunteers in assisting Syrian families arriving in North Carolina – another state where the governor has promised to block them.

“Americans are generally wonderful people who want to help refugees,” Zane Kuseybi told FRANCE 24. “But what we hear from the media, from certain extremists – the ugliness, the hate – tends to carry a lot more weight within our society than it deserves.”

"Refugees walk through these doors pretty much every day, and we're there to support them with that": Mahmoud Mahmoud, Director or Church World Service New Jersey. © Sophie Pilgrim, FRANCE 24.

Like Al Roustom in New Jersey, Lana Kuseybi is baffled by what she says is an irrational fear of Syrian refugees. “We have become so callous, we cannot see these people as just people. This irrational fear that we, as a country, now carry – it’s become the burden of these desperate refugees, who are fleeing war and death, to prove us otherwise.”

Lana and Zane say they were overwhelmed by the generosity in their town of Greensboro when they first appealed for help in welcoming a Syrian family in August. Neighbours raised $1,000, donated furniture, clothing, a baby stroller, a cot, plates and cutlery for the Al Haj Kasem family, who fled northwest Syria in 2012 and also spent years in refugee camps before being admitted to the US. Today, the family, albeit struggling with poorly-paid jobs and paperwork, has become part of the town's multi-ethnic patchwork.

“If everyone could meet a Syrian refugee, there would no longer be this fear,” Lana Kuseybi said.

Al Roustom agrees. He says he was welcomed “with open arms” when he arrived in Jersey City in June. Even in the immediate aftermath of the attacks in Paris – when Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson compared Syrian refugees with “rabid dogs” – Al Roustom said “neighbours were very kind to me”.

Moving on

The non-profit group that helped to resettle both families, the Church World Service, is determined to remain undeterred by conservative lawmakers’ attempts to reject Syrian arrivals.


- 2,234 Syrian refugees have been admitted to the United States since October 1, 2010.
- No Syrian refugee has been arrested or removed on terrorism charges.
- 77 percent of Syrian refugees are women and children. Two percent are single men.
- The Obama administration plans to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016.
- Syrians face an “enhanced level of review” compared with other refugees seeking to reach the US.

Speaking to FRANCE 24, Will Haney of the Church World Service argued that threats like Governor Christie’s in New Jersey were “unacceptable” and held no legal weight – an assertion that legal experts have confirmed.

“The US refugee admissions programme is a federal programme,” Haney said. “Once refugees are in the US, they legally reside here. So as long as we receive refugees from the Department of State, we will continue [to help rehome them], at all of our locations across the country.”

Haney dismissed those who point to a possible Syrian link to the Paris attacks as an argument for "safeguarding" the US.

“In Europe they are not taking years to process refugee applications," he said, "so to compare the process in the United States with the one in Europe is apples and oranges".

On Monday, the same team that met Hussam Al Roustom in June drove to the airport to welcome New Jersey’s newest arrivals.

The family of seven moved into a small apartment in Paterson, and like those before them, were welcomed to a house packed full of donations – a fully furnished home, with bunk beds for the children, a small sofa, a large dining table, plates and cutlery ... even a backgammon set.

“We're going to continue assisting these people because we believe in the work that we're doing,” Haney said. “Syrian refugees are the most vetted population that arrive here in the US. We're confident that they’re not a threat.”

Date created : 2015-12-04

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