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With families in war zone, Syrian expats ‘disappointed’ in US response

After Zaher Alwattar’s calls to the State Department went unanswered, his sister died fleeing Syria with her children

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Zaher Alwattar is giving up on the U.S. government. America Tonight first met the Syrian-American handyman two years ago, tending to his garden in between daily calls to the U.S. State Department, asking for help in getting his siblings out of Syria to the United States.

Alwattar’s pleas went unanswered and he eventually gave up on bringing his family to the U.S. As the situation worsened and their options became even more limited, he says his sister and her family became desperate to leave. Last year, Alwattar says his sister became one of the thousands to die crossing the Mediterranean Sea. He says she was making the dangerous journey with her two kids, hoping to eventually reach Sweden.

Many Syrians in Columbus are American citizens and have been in this country for decades. They're frustrated with how difficult it is to bring their relatives to the U.S.
America Tonight

“She was doing anything she can to get them to safety,” he said, pointing out the discrimination and lack of opportunity his sister’s family faced in nearby countries.

Stories like Alwattar’s are hardly unique. Syrian Americans across the country have families back home, many stuck in areas experiencing daily violence. As rebels clash with both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government forces and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), nearly 12 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes since 2011. The Syrian community in Columbus, Ohio, many of whom American citizens and have been in this country for decades, is frustrated with how difficult it is to bring their relatives to the U.S. 

The underlying problem

Iyad Azrak, another Syrian American living in central Ohio, is familiar with that struggle. His parents live in Aleppo, where, he says, they sometimes go days without water or electricity. He’s working to help them immigrate to the U.S., a process that can take years.

Azrak came to the U.S. in 2001 for medical school and now works as an ophthalmologist near Columbus. Twice a year, he travels back to Syria to provide medical assistance, most recently in July.

“It's much worse than what we see on TV and in the media,” he said. “Living it is worse.”

For Syrians without relatives in America, their best hope of coming to the U.S. is to gain asylum – and the odds are slim. Even though the Obama administration has given more than $4 billion to humanitarian efforts in Syria, only 1,500 Syrian refugees have been granted entry to the U.S. since the civil war began. 

In July, Dr. Iyad Azrak traveled back to Syria to provide medical assistance.
Courtesy of Iyad Azrak

“It is very disappointing,” Azrak said. “However, it's part of how the administration dealt with the problem overall.” He added that he felt the U.S. government did not effectively deal with the 2013 chemical attack on civilians or with Russia’s increased military involvement in the country.

While helping Syrians get to safety is a top concern, Azrak says he and other Syrian Americans are pushing the Obama administration to take a more proactive role in solving the political crisis that’s led to the increase of refugees.

“Really, we want to focus on how to get help inside Syria, so we can keep people inside their homes rather than forcing them to get out,” he said.


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