Syrian refugees in Louisiana swept up in fierce political debate

Despite small numbers, newcomers caught in backlash against refugee resettlement

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, right, with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley at a presidential candidates’ forum in Greenville, South Carolina, in September 2015.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

NEW ORLEANS — At night, the quiet among the organized blocks of modest houses and close-cropped lawns in this comfortable, middle-class community is punctuated only by the sounds of the occasional frog or passing car. The chaos of the French Quarter and rowdier urban sections of New Orleans, as well as the brutal war in Syria, feel like a world away.

Living with his wife and four small children in a tidy suburb a few miles outside the city, in an area not unlike where two Syrian refugee families have recently been resettled, Ahmed, a Syrian-American, came to the U.S. 22 years ago.

Ahmed, who declined to use his real name for fear of anyone using him to track down refugees, is one of the few people outside of a local resettlement organization who have been in contact with the Louisiana families — 13 people in total — that have become local symbols of a pitched battle over refugees and fearmongering that is playing out on the national stage.

“They have been through a lot to get somewhere, and now … they found out that here the eye is on them too,” said Ahmed of the scrutiny faced by refugee families. “They are scared and worried. They don’t know what to do … They don’t come over here just to be here. They came here because they have a catastrophic place to live in.”

Out of the 1,800 refugees from Syria who have been accepted into the U.S. during that country’s more than four-year civil war, Louisiana is home to just those 13. According to Catholic Charities, a nonprofit group assisting with refugee resettlement in the state, there are no additional Syrian refugees slated to be resettled in Louisiana through March.

But in the wake of the Paris attacks, the issue of Syrian resettlement was rapidly seized on last week by state politicians and presidential hopefuls seeking to boost their political fortunes.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, just days before ending his faltering campaign for president, issued an executive order aiming to bar Syrian refugee resettlement in Louisiana. The son of Indian immigrants, he is one of over two dozen governors — nearly all of them Republican — who have moved to block Syrian resettlement in recent days, including Mississippi’s, Alabama’s and Texas’.

On the presidential campaign trail, leading GOP candidates have ratcheted up the anti-refugee rhetoric. Ben Carson drew fire for his Nov. 19 comments comparing the issue of refugee resettlement to shielding one’s child from a rabid dog and has called for an immediate end to all federal funds supporting Syrian refugee resettlement. At a Birmingham, Alabama, rally on Saturday, Donald Trump said that, if he is elected, he will deport Syrian refugees and that those “we can’t stop” should be put under surveillance and in a database

‘[Syrian refugees] are scared and worried. They don’t know what to do. They don’t come over here just to be here. They came here because they have a catastrophic place to live in.’

a Syrian-American in New Orleans

In the closely watched race to succeed Jindal in Louisiana, Democrat John Bel Edwards and Republican Sen. David Vitter traded barbs and negative political ads over Syrian refugees.

“John Bel Edwards has promised to work with Obama to bring Syrian refugees to Louisiana,” declares the narrator in an ad featuring video from the Paris attacks released by Vitter the week of the election. Edwards countered that in the last pre-election debate, saying “David Vitter is desperate. He will lie and distort.” Edwards called for a “pause” on resettlement in Louisiana.

Trailing in the polls in the run-up to Saturday’s election, which saw Edwards score a landmark victory in the predominantly red state, Vitter took an especially hard line against Syrian refugees. On Nov. 17 he introduced a Senate bill that calls for a suspension of the Syrian refugee resettlement process, including application review, for at least 300 days.

In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry as well as on social media, Vitter cited the case of a resettled Syrian refugee in Baton Rouge who had allegedly “gone missing” as proof of “the inadequacies” of current refugee screening and tracking procedures.

The Louisiana State Police and Catholic Charities quickly shot down Vitter’s tale in a joint press conference. Officials confirmed that the individual in question had never been missing and had traveled to Washington, D.C., to join family there after receiving approval on a change of address request filed with the Department of Homeland Security, following protocols.

Vitter’s false claim came two days after local news agencies debunked a widely shared, erroneous report from a conservative blog that 10,000 Syrian refugees had arrived in New Orleans, stoking public concern.

State police officials said last week that they are investigating at least one death threat against refugees that was phoned in to Catholic Charities’ Baton Rouge office.

“There is so much misinformation being spread,” said David Aguillard, the executive director of Catholic Charities for the Baton Rouge Diocese. Like many other leaders of religious groups in recent days, he spoke out against the characterization of refugees as potential threats.

“In general, refugees are fleeing horrendous conditions. They have seen things and been victimized in situations that we can’t even imagine,” he said. “Look at what’s happening to the Syrians. They are drowning in the Mediterranean trying to escape [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad and [the Islamic State] dropping bombs on their homes.”

Catholic Charities, under the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, is one of nine organizations approved by the State Department to aid incoming refugees. They provide connections to interpretation and legal services as well as assistance in finding housing and employment during the first few months after resettlement.

“They become better Americans than most of us are,” Aguillard said of refugees he has worked with over the years. “They love this country and the freedom and the opportunities here because they know what it’s like to not have that.”

But few have escaped the reach of the war, no matter how long they have lived in the U.S. Although Ahmed, a naturalized American citizen, left Syria decades ago, like most Syrian-Americans, he has not eluded the repercussions of a brutal conflict. “In my family, I have 41 people [who] died,” he said. “Almost everyone from my family [is a refugee]. There is nothing left in Syria. Everything is gone.”

His children, all born in Louisiana, cite the country of their parents’ birth only in terms of tragedy. “There’s a lot of blood on the TV,” said his oldest daughter, Sara, 7. “The children of Syria do not have school, do not have food or water or anything. And they’re trying to escape and go to different countries.” Her 6-year-old sister, Jena, said, Assad “kills people, and nobody helps the Syrians. I want to send them a note and see if maybe they can come here.”

‘They have seen things and been victimized in situations that we can’t even imagine. Look at what’s happening to the Syrians. They are drowning in the Mediterranean trying to escape [President Bashar al-]Assad, and ISIS dropping bombs on their homes.’

David Aguillard

Catholic Charities’ Baton Rouge Diocese director

For many Syrian refugees who have made it to the U.S., like Alaa Hammouz, 24, their focus is on starting a life outside their home country, to which they may never return.

He lives in Atlanta, where he fled in 2012 to stay with relatives after receiving threats for speaking out against the Assad government. He used a previously approved visitor’s visa to enter the U.S. via Lebanon and then applied for asylum, a process that took nearly two years and included extensive interviews and background checks.

“Day and night, I was dreaming of it,” he said of the long waiting period for protected status. “I was getting nightmares about going back to Syria.” If he hadn’t been able to go to the U.S., he believes, he would be in jail or dead because of his stance against the Syrian government. Today he is taking community college classes, restarting his medical education after leaving Syria as a third-year dental student.

He said that many Americans he met when he first arrived weren’t even sure where Syria was.

“People don’t understand. They just hear what the media told them,” Hammouz said of the post-Paris backlash against Syrian refugees.

After suggesting Americans should “be merciful” with Syrian refugees, he added, “I don’t blame [Americans] … They want their homeland to be safe and secure.”

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