Haya El Nasser

Syrian refugees in US fear backlash after Paris attacks

As more than half the states say ‘no’ to Syrian refugees, California says it will take them in with more screening

POMONA, California — It seems fitting that the first U.S. home of many Syrian refugees who arrive in southern California is called the American Inn & Suites, a low-budget hotel about 30 miles east of downtown Los Angeles that accommodates extended stays.

For Syrian refugees such as the Wawiehs, who fled violence in their home town of Douma outside Damascus more than two years ago with just the clothes on their backs and who have lived in limbo in Lebanon and Egypt since then, getting the phone call that the U.S. was taking them in was a blessing.

No matter that the family of eight has been squeezed into two rooms and living out of stuffed suitcases that surround their beds. And never mind that their current accommodations are a huge step down from the family home they left behind, which had seven bedrooms, two kitchens, two baths and two guest rooms. Or that Fouad Wawieh, the 45-year-old patriarch, was a successful sheep rancher in Syria who is now forced to support his family with food stamps and can’t find an apartment that he can afford on refugee subsidies.

At least, they feel safe here. His six children, aged 5 to 19, are learning English and going to school. He hopes to find a job in the wholesale produce industry.

But now, Wawieh sees anti-refugee sentiments in this country rising since the Paris terrorist attacks last Friday. ISIL claimed responsibility. He is baffled by the backlash and can’t hide his disappointment in the reactions of many Americans.

“It’s a country of freedom and human rights,” he said, through a translator. “How come, when it comes to Syrians, you don’t apply these values.”

More than half of U.S. governors, all Republicans except for New Hampshire Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, have written letters to President Obama saying they will not accept any of the 10,000 Syrian refugees the administration had agreed to take in over the next year. States saying “no” to refugees include Michigan, which has one of the country’s largest concentration of Arabs in Dearborn.

Several governors cited reports that a Syrian passport was found near the body of one of the suspected Paris attackers. However, every attacker so far identified has been a national of a European Union country.

States don’t have the authority to prevent the resettlement of refugees but governors can order local refugee programs not to cooperate with the federal government.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in his letter: “Neither you nor any federal official can guarantee that Syrian refugees will not be part of any terroristic activity. As such, opening our door to them irresponsibly exposes our fellow Americans to unacceptable peril.”

Refugee organizations in Houston, which has been a hub of refugee resettlement for decades, have put preparations on hold.

All the Republican presidential candidates — except for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Ted Cruz — have also spoken out in favor of suspending refugee arrivals.

Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives will vote on legislation to mandate a “pause” in the U.S. program to accept Syrian refugees. Both House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are backing suspending the program.

“Of course, we reject this xenophobic reaction or action,” said Hussam Ayloush, the volunteer national chairman of the Syrian American Council and executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in the Los Angeles area. “It goes against what America stands for and has always stood for. … For some Republicans to exploit the tragedy in Syria perhaps to promote their campaigns is shameful and immoral. It actually is equivalent to joining hands with ISIS and (Syrian president Bashar) Assad in victimizing the Syrian people again. These are people fighting ISIS. We should find ways to show them support.”

The Obama administration is not backing down from its decision to take in refugees.

“We will do the right thing by refugees,” said Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday. “How can someone say a 50-year-old with a grandchild is a threat?”

In California, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown reaffirmed his support for providing asylum but called for stricter vetting of refugees.

“I intend to work closely with the President so that he can both uphold America’s traditional role as a place of asylum, but also ensure that anyone seeking refuge in America is fully vetted in a sophisticated and utterly reliable way,” he said.

Three of Fouad Wawieh's six children: from left, Massa, 5, Maram, 9, Omran, 12, all of whom have started going to public school and are getting tutored in English.
Haya El Nasser

About 11 percent of Syrian refugees who came to America since 2012 came to California, the nation’s most populous state with 39 million people. Southern California, Los Angeles and Orange counties in particular, has the highest number of Syrian Americans, with numbers estimated at about 60,000. Many of the more recent arrivals are not necessarily refugees but asylum seekers, people who have overstayed their visas and some with temporary protective status.

Wawieh had to go through 13 months of intensive background checks, interviews, physical exams and find a sponsor in California before getting the green light to come to the U.S. He can’t understand how one of the Paris terrorists could have slipped through the process.

Syrians here point out that there have been about 4 million refugees outside of Syria and this may be the first incident linked to refugees.

Mahmoud Tarifi is on the board of the Islamic Center of Claremont and has been helping the Wawiehs navigate the bureaucratic maze they are encountering in their new lives here: Getting housing vouchers, finding an affordable place to live, enrolling the kids in school, learning English, finding work. His wife drives the kids to school.

The Wawiehs worry about relatives they left behind. Fouad’s family are still there. His wife, Safa, 37, has sisters still there. And they now have to worry about relatives who fled to Jordan and have been waiting to come here.

“Now it looks harder than before,” said Hanadi Alwan, a Syrian American who has been here since the 1980s and now works as a volunteer with refugee groups.

Some refugees have been waiting in Jordan for three years, said Anisa Abeytia, California director of the Syrian American Council.  “They’re the most vulnerable.”

The push to stop taking in Syrian refugees has dominated the conversation in Syrian restaurants and cafes.

“Are they going to allow the refugees to actually come here? Is the policy all going to change?,” asked Abeytia, who said local Arabs and Muslims are bracing for a backlash.

Already, she went to a mosque in Los Angeles County with her daughters on Friday. Someone threw a device that made a loud sound. It could’ve been a firecracker, she said, but there was no doubt it was meant to send a warning.

Mosques in Florida and Texas have received threats.

There have not been physical threats made here, Ayloush said, but out of caution, the Syrian American Council requested additional police protection for its annual banquet last Saturday in Anaheim.

“So far, the only thing we’ve seen a substantial increase in is the rhetoric, especially on social media,” he said.

In the meantime, families such as the Wawiehs, who got in before the campaign to end refugee inflows began, have mixed emotions. They’re relieved but fearful and disappointed.

“You’re going to shut the door in our faces and you’re not going to defeat the (Syrian) regime?,” Fouad Wawieh said.

Tarifi said he is expecting two more families to arrive by the end of this year but “who knows what’s going to happen next year.”

Americans opposed to taking in refugees should remember their nation’s history, he said. When he took Wawieh to apply for food stamps, he was carring a plastic bag given to him by the International Organization For Migration.

His case worker, a Vietnamese American, told him: “I carried that same bag 40 years ago.”

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