Oct 8 9:00 PM

Why isn't America taking in more Syrian refugees?

Zaher Alwattar

Zaher Alwattar, a Syrian-American handyman living in Columbus, Ohio, makes the same call nearly every day. He has been calling the U.S. State Department, asking them for help to bring his brother and his brother’s family from Syria, here, to the United States.

Alwattar describes his brother “like a twin.” They grew up together in Syria in the 1980’s, sharing the same friends and same experiences, until Alwattar found himself in a Syrian prison. He still does not know the crime, but he knew once he got out, it was time to leave. Alwattar left Syria to study agriculture in the United States, and his brother stayed in Syria and became a doctor. Since Syria’s civil war, doctors have become targets. Aiding the enemy, even providing medical care, makes them into the enemy. Alwattar’s brother has another reason to fear as well, his children. Alwattar’s nephew was killed last spring after going out for a walk.

With the number of Syrian refugees now at more than 2 million, half of them children, the U.N. is calling Syria the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis. But the U.S. has only taken in 90 Syrian refugees since the civil war began. (What refugees have come to the U.S. in the biggest numbers? Read the story here.) 

"For the Syrians that are abroad, for the refugees, the options are extremely limited," says Nadeen Aljijakli, a Syrian-American immigration attorney. Aljijakli gets emails from hundreds of families like Alwattar’s, every day. "There's no tangible refugee process for them to come to the United States," she explains.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) has an answer.

“About six months ago I organized a letter to the secretary of the Department of Homeland security - to grant humanitarian parole to about 6,000 Syrians who are trying to be reunited with their families here in the United States.” He says it’s something we can do to help with the refugee problem, “obviously just a small piece, given there are millions of refugees. But here’s an opportunity for us to do our part.”

Schiff has yet to hear a response.

The U.S. has a generous track record when it comes to refugee resettlement. This year, 70,000 refugees, many of them from Iraq, Burma, Bhutan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are expected to find a home in America. The U.S. has also contributed an unprecedented $1.3 billion in emergency relief to Syrians -- the highest in the world.

But that doesn’t help Alwattar in his quest to bring his family here. In fact, the war makes it harder for Syrians to get even a visitor visa to the U.S., since this required proving that your visit is temporary.  When conditions in your home country are so horrible, that is difficult to show.

In August, the U.S. State Department said the U.S. would admit 2,000 Syrian refugees. But Larry Bartlett, director of Refugee Resettlement at the State Department, told America Tonight that this 2,000 number will be shared among several different countries. He called it a "humanitarian gesture."

After countless calls and three voicemail messages, someone at the State Department finally picked up Alwattar’s call. Asked if this made him optimistic, Alwattar replied: “Not really, but at least somebody answered this time.”

For the refugees who are granted refugee status, the process can take over a year. For Alwattar, the only other option is a family reunification visa which can take up to 12 years.

Alwattar’s brother and his family did manage to escape Syria for Lebanon, but as a doctor, there was no work and no opportunities for them there. So until something better comes up, they are back in Syria, and Alwattar is praying for the best.


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