Slavosh Hosseini / SIPA

Syrian refugees in Paris fear backlash after attacks

‘They left their country because of war and found it here again,’ activist says of those who fled ISIL and civil war

PARIS — Oday Ghalyoun was on his way to a friend’s apartment in Voltaire, central Paris on Friday night when he heard a familiar sound rattling out 50 yards behind him.

Ghalyoun, a 25-year-old Syrian refugee from Homs, at first thought it was fireworks. But as he scrambled away from the source of the noise — the Bataclan concert hall, where gunmen had opened fire and killed 89 people — he quickly changed his mind. “I spent two years in Homs,” a city that has seen relentless fighting during more than four years of civil war, he said. “I know how Kalashnikovs sound.”

For Ghalyoun — and the rest of France’s several thousand Syrian refugees – the sights and sounds of Friday evening were both traumatic and eerily familiar: gunfire, panicked screaming, stunned victims with bloodstains on their clothes. So, too, was the apparent perpetrator. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has claimed responsibility for the attacks, laid its roots amid Syria’s chaotic civil war, eventually consolidating control over more than 50 percent of the country and threatening attacks across the globe. Its brutal rule is one of the main drivers of the refugee crisis, especially among activists and religious minorities.

“They left their country because of war and found it here again,” said Lyna Chami, a Syrian-French volunteer with Syrians and Friends Paris, a civil society organization that assists newly arrived refugees.

But as the French mourn those killed in the attacks and fear what’s to come, Syrians are faced with an additional burden: blame. In the wake of reports that a Syrian passport had been found near the remains of a dead suicide bomber, U.S. officials on Sunday revealed that the attackers may have had contact with ISIL in Syria. It isn’t clear what this evidence means, but the Syria connection has already reignited a heated debate in Europe over the potential security risks posed by the tens of thousands of refugees who are landing on European shores each month.

For a growing right-wing current in Europe, the attacks lent credence to their worst fears: that ISIL might sneak operatives into Europe among the flow of desperate refugees. Marine Le Pen, leader of the French far-right National Front, declared her predictions vindicated and reiterated her call for France to shutter “radical” mosques and expel “illegal migrants.” Other European countries have followed suit, with Poland’s incoming European affairs minister, Konrad Szymanski, saying Saturday that his country would no longer take the migrants it was due to accept under a European Union refugee quota system.

At a cafe just off the Voltaire roundabout, Zahia Darkazanli, a Syrian-French activist who volunteers with refugee assistance organizations in Paris, said the Syrian community expected this response. “The National Front will benefit from this situation,” Darkazanli said, speaking over the sirens of the ambulances and police cars that have been whizzing through her neighborhood for two days. “They will say, ‘See, we told you Syrian people are like this.’”

Many experts on ISIL say this was likely the group’s goal: to promote a backlash against Syrian refugees — and Muslims, more generally — in Europe, fueling the group’s narrative of war against the “infidels.” No one dismisses the considerable risks Europe has shouldered in taking in such huge numbers of refugees, who cannot always be vetted as thoroughly as the much smaller number of refugees resettled in the United States. But after the reports of the Syrian passport surfaced, experts were skeptical and cautioned that hastily blaming refugees would play right into ISIL's hands. 

French authorities, have already indicated the Syrian passport may be a fake. There is a burgeoning forgery industry for Syrian passports, which many non-Syrians are eager to get their hands on so they can be eligible for asylum in Europe. Others question the very premise: “Why would a jihadist who expressly rejects all notions of modern citizenship take his passport on a suicide mission?” asked Charlie Winter, an expert on extremist groups, in a tweet. His answer: “So it gets found.”

As ISIL made clear in a series of propaganda videos released in September — in which the group displayed images of drowned migrants in the Mediterranean to paint Europe as Islamophobic and callous to the Syrian cause — it is eager to stem the flow of refugees from its self-declared “caliphate,” ISIL expert Aaron Zelin wrote in a post to the Jihadology blog. “The reality is, [ISIL] loathes that individuals are fleeing Syria for Europe. It undermines [the group’s] message that its self-styled Caliphate is a refuge, because if it was, individuals would actually go there in droves,” rather than risk their lives aboard rickety smuggler boats trying to escape.

Both inside and outside their country, many Syrians have been keen to express their sympathy for the French, with some changing their profile pictures on Facebook to French flags and others penning notes of solidarity. The day of the Paris attacks, Darkazanli said she even received messages of concern and condolence from her family in Raqqa, ISIL’s de facto Syrian capital, which was targeted with anti-ISIL airstrikes numerous times that day.

Syrians hope that, rather than force a rethink of refugee policy, the Paris attacks might compel European policymakers to shift their attention to the root cause of both the refugee crisis and the ISIL threat — Syria’s civil war. The attacks came just one day before diplomats from all the major stakeholders in Syria met in Vienna in a bid to kickstart Syria’s long dormant peace process. A political solution to Syria’s war has long been hampered by regional rivalries played out through proxies, who line up behind the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad or various rebel factions. But as French politicians, including president Francois Hollande, issue warnings that the “war” with ISIL has arrived on European soil, many feel there is a fresh sense of urgency to end the bloodshed.

“This is the reality,” said Hussam Almrawweh, a 25-year-old refugee from Homs, who was in the area during the attacks. “We knew that if we didn’t stop the violence and sectarianism in Syria, it would spread. Maybe France, America, Britain would be next.” In his view, the attacks should be a reminder that “if you don’t address the center of terrorism, it will keep being sent at you. They’ll send and send and send.”

Even if that is the case, Almrawweh says he is grateful to be in Paris, where he feels welcomed and where, until now, his biggest challenge has been mastering French. And, despite newspaper headlines pronouncing “War in the heart of Paris,” the situation in France does not compare to what refugees fled in Syria.

In France, “there’s still stability and peace for Syrians” and a chance to “find a new life,” said Chami, the volunteer with Syrians and Friends Paris. In Syria, “it’s a constant question of life or death." Like many of the Syrian refugees she works with, Chami blames the Syrian government of Assad for creating that chaos that birthed ISIL. “Daesh may be here, now,” she said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIL, “but there, the bombs strike from Russia and Assad, too.”

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