A Syrian refugee in the US: ‘I want to contribute to society here’

Asylum seeker Yamen Ghazal voices concern over US lawmakers' assertions that refugees pose a threat

Twenty-five-year-old Syrian refugee Yamen Ghazal lives in Orange County, California.  In 2014, he left Aleppo — Syria’s largest city now torn apart in the civil war between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and opposition rebels — to take refuge in the United States. His parents and three siblings stayed behind and he has not seen them since.

“I couldn’t stay there. In Syria, after you finish university you are forced to join the army,” said Ghazal, who completed his studies in chemistry and worked as an assistant pharmacist there. “When you join the army, you either have to kill or be killed — I could not do that. I was not cut to kill.” 

Ghazal entered the U.S. through Lebanon after receiving his tourist visa in January of 2014. He has since applied for asylum in the U.S., but says his status is still pending a final hearing that is scheduled for 2017.

“Everything is so strict. The first time my papers were not complete and I got rejected; then the second time because of my English, we had miscommunication, even the translator was not good. So now I’m waiting for the judge to hear my case again — but that’s not going to happen until two years from now. They said it’s either that or nothing,” said Ghazal.

Five years into Syria’s civil war, the conflict has worsened by the rise and growth of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The armed group, comprised of Syrians and international fighters, is headquartered in the Syrian city of Raqqa and reportedly controls half of the country.

According to the United Nations, since the beginning of the war more than four million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries — including Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Thousands have also made their way to Europe, sparking the continent’s largest refugee crisis since World War II.

“I didn’t want to go to Turkey or Lebanon, because the situations for refugees is terrible there. They don’t want us there and the conditions are abusive,” said Ghazal, adding that in the U.S. his future may not be as grim. “Here, in the U.S., it’s the land of opportunity. I don’t want money from the government. … I just want to be able to finish my study, to be a dentist or a doctor — I want to contribute to society here.”

However, after last week’s bombing and shooting attacks in Paris that killed 129 people and injured more than 350 others, U.S. reception appears rocky.

ISIL claimed responsibility for the attacks in the French capital, and a Syrian passport was found near the body of one of the bombers — raising fears that the perpetrators may have made their way from Syria to Europe by hiding among the throngs of refugees entering the continent. To date, however, none of the assailants have been identified as Syrian and all are EU passport holders.

The fear — real or imagined — has led to more than half of U.S. state governors to call on President Barack Obama to halt plans to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the country. The governors, most of whom are Republican, say that attackers could be hiding among the asylum seekers and carry out attacks similar to Paris in the U.S.

Acting on similar concerns, the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday overwhelmingly voted in favor of a bill that makes it even more difficult for Syrian refugees to enter the United States. The measure, which passed 289-137, garnered enough votes from Republican and Democratic lawmakers to override a veto by the president, who had previously warned against the legislation.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called the measure “un-American” and said it would bring U.S. resettlement of refugees to a grinding halt, rather than a “pause” as the bill's supporters claim.

“In fact, it will bring resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees to a grinding halt by adding layers of bureaucracy to an already rigorous process,” said Karin Johanson, the director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office. 

U.S. lawmakers’ rhetoric has disheartened Ghazal, who now works as a waiter and also does manual labor.

“Everyone is treating refugees as terrorists. Why?” he asked. “If I’m here, that means I ran away from the terrorist. if I want to be a terrorist I will stay in my own country and do it there. Why would I come here?”

Ghazal said he broke his back in May due to heavy lifting.

“You see, I’m ready to do anything to make a living here. I even had to send money back to my family to support them, but after my back broke I can’t work as much so I’m struggling to pay for classes that I was planning to take in fall.”

He said his family managed to leave Aleppo to Dubai a year ago. But many of his friends who stayed in Syria have been killed.

“We are fighting away from the same people who the U.S. is fighting,” he said, adding, “ISIL is not Islam.”

“Is it fair for us to say that all Christians are KKK just because a group of crazy people acted in a certain way some years ago? No? We are not like them,” Ghazal said, referring to U.S. hate group the Ku Klux Klan

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said on Wednesday that it was “absolute nonsense” to try to blame refugees for terror attacks, stressing that they were its “first victims” and could not be held responsible for what happened in Paris, and bombings in Beirut and elsewhere. "It is not the refugee outflows that cause terrorism, it is terrorism, tyranny and war that create refugees.”

The White House says 2,100 Syrian refugees have been admitted to the U.S. since 9/11 and that not one has been arrested or deported for terrorist-related activity.

“You know America says they want to help Syrians; but see, I’m a people, my friends are people; what are they doing? Nothing, except making it harder for us to live. Instead of pushing us all aside, let’s all work together to fight ISIL,” Ghazal said.

UNHCR reported this year that inside Syria the situation is deteriorating rapidly. More than 12 million people are in need of aid to stay alive. Almost 8 million have been forced from their homes, sharing crowded rooms with other families or camping in abandoned buildings. An estimated 4.8 million Syrians inside the country are in places that are hard to reach, including 212,000 trapped in besieged areas.

The report added that a survey of 40,000 Syrian families in Jordan's urban areas found that two-thirds were living below the poverty line.

“We have so many successful Syrian and Muslim people in the U.S. I want to be one of them,” Ghazal said. “I’m afraid of going back because I will get killed.”

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter