AMMAN: A single mother. A former schoolteacher. A gas attack survivor. A former political detainee. These are four of the thousands of Syrians who have sought refuge in the United States since the Syrian uprising first began in 2011.
Now living in California, Georgia, Louisiana and Florida, they have found new homes and new friends. They are working, practicing English and building new lives.
Over the past year and a half, Syrians in America have watched as one of the most vicious and polarizing United States presidential races in recent memory unfolded between Republican candidate Donald Trump—a former reality TV star and real-estate mogul—and Hillary Clinton, a former Secretary of State, senator and First Lady.
On the campaign trail, then-candidate Donald Trump spoke to the fears of some Americans that refugees entering the country from countries such as Syria and Iraq could pose a threat to national security.
Trump compared Syrian refugees—more than 12,000 of whom resettled in the US in 2016—to treacherous snakes. He warned of a “Trojan horse.” Trump’s eldest son, a key campaign adviser, likened Syrian refugees to poisoned Skittles.
An anti-Trump protest in the US city of Denver on November 11. Photo courtesy of Andrew Repp Photography.
“Anybody that comes in, if I win, they’re going back out,” then-presidential hopeful Trump told a crowd of supporters in the US state of Iowa in January 2016, referring to Syrian refugees. “We’re going to do it humanely and everything, but they’re going back out,” Trump said. “We don’t know who they are, where they come from.”
On November 8, Donald Trump won. He will be inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States in January 2017. The question now is, how much of his campaign rhetoric—including extreme vetting for immigrants, mass deportations of undocumented people, registering Muslims and suspending immigration from volatile regions—will become policy?
In this, the week after Trump’s election, Syria Direct spoke with four Syrian refugees who arrived in the United States over the past five years. They sit at the intersection of the president-elect’s proposed anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-refugee policies.
Some expressed fear, anxiety and uncertainty about the future. Others are also cautiously optimistic, encouraged by anti-Trump demonstrations and the belief that the rule of law will shield them from the worst.
All of the Syrians we interviewed hope that the country where they found refuge will not turn its back on them.
‘I’m not a terrorist’
“Trump is not America,” Adnan al-Ahmad, a 40-year-old former English teacher, told Syria Direct from his home in Louisiana. “I don’t expect that we will really be thrown out.”
Al-Ahmad fled from southern Syria’s Daraa province to Jordan in 2013 with his wife and four children, “because I was afraid that they would be killed or kidnapped,” he said. The family spent 10 months in the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan before moving to the capital, Amman. Initially accepted for resettlement in the United States in 2015, al-Ahmad went through months of interviews and security checks before setting foot on a plane.
The resettlement process for the United States, from initial referral by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to arrival, takes an average of 18-24 months and includes vetting by the National Counterterrorism Center, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security.
Al-Ahmad, like the other Syrian refugees who spoke to Syria Direct this week, was still unsettled by the presidential campaign, particularly Trump’s “racist statements about fighting Muslims and expelling immigrants,” he said.
The Obama administration, in September, pledged to admit 40,000 new refugees from the Near East and South Asia—including Syria—in 2017. It remains to be seen whether President-elect Trump will abide by that pledge when he takes office.
According to policy positions listed on the President-elect’s official website, Donald Trump aims to “establish new screening procedures” for immigrants “to keep terrorists out” and temporarily suspend “immigration from some of the most dangerous and volatile regions in the world that have a history of exporting terrorism.”
There is no mention of deporting refugees who entered the United States during the Obama administration.
“I have wonderful American neighbors, but I’m really afraid now that Trump won,” Umm Ahmad, a single mother of three children living in California told Syria Direct, “after what he said about expelling Muslims and illegal immigrants.”
“I’m not a terrorist, and neither are my children,” said Umm Ahmad. Originally from Daraa province, she fled with her husband and family to Jordan in mid-2013. Her husband died shortly afterwards, and Umm Ahmad supported her family by making and selling hairclips.
In 2015, while living in the northern Jordanian town of Mafraq, Umm Ahmad got the phone call from the UN resettlement office telling her she could be resettled in the US. “I immediately agreed,” she said, then went through the months of interviews and vetting. “We just want to live in peace and safety.”
Today, the safety she found in the US is a little bit shaken. One of Umm Ahmad’s fears after the election is that “Trump gave the green light to lawless people in the US to harass Muslim immigrants.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a US nonprofit that aims to track and combat hate, intolerance and discrimination in the country through education and litigation, collected 437 reports of “hateful intimidation and harassment” in the first six days after the election. Most of the alleged incidents (136) involved anti-immigrant sentiments, followed by anti-black, anti-Muslim and anti-LGBT.
In 2015, during a presidential campaign filled with anti-Muslim, anti-refugee and anti-immigrant rhetoric, hate crimes against Muslims increased by 67 percent, according to statistics released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Abdelsattar Ahmad, a student originally from the East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, is currently living and studying at a university in Georgia. He told Syria Direct he heard about Islamophobic incidents after the election, but says that little has changed in his day-to-day life.
“Without a doubt, there are Americans who are afraid of immigrants,” said Ahmad. “I had a few experiences with them at my university—people would avoid me.”
“Later on, a professor asked me to give a talk about how I left Syria,” said Ahmad, “I was surprised that many of those same people then approached me and empathized with me.”
Ahmad was injured in the 2013 sarin gas attack on the rebel-held East Ghouta suburbs that killed hundreds of people. After inhaling the gas, he was taken to Jordan for treatment, and stayed before being resettled in the United States.
“I got a lot of apologies,” said Ahmad.
The election was an “unexpected shock, even for Americans in the area I live in,” Ahmad said. His American friends “still haven’t accepted that Trump won.”
As a young, single man, Ahmad is part of the very demographic that so many people in the United States and Europe are afraid of coming as refugees. Even so, he described positive interactions with people where he lives.
“I’m happy to be here,” said Ahmad, “I see the Americans as wonderful, understanding people with respect for different views.”
Talal al-Khalaf, a 27-year-old originally from Damascus and currently living in Florida, was arrested by regime security forces in 2008 “because my father and brother were opposed to the regime,” he told Syria Direct. Al-Khalaf was held in the Department of Military Intelligence’s notorious Palestine (235) Branch for two months before he was released and fled to Lebanon. From there, he was resettled in the US in 2012.
Florida resident Talal al-Khalaf came to the US after being detained by the Syrian regime. Photo courtesy of Talal al-Khalaf.
Al-Khalaf, who now works for a web hosting and design company, is optimistic about his future in America. “I don’t think that Syrian refugees are under special threat,” he said, “what Trump said was just for the media.”
Former English teacher Adnan al-Ahmad agrees. “This is a country of laws with a constitution,” he said. “The American people are good and generous. They would not accept such an act.”
For those who do fear the Syrians resettled in their midst, gas attack survivor and university student Ahmad had a message this week: “The Syrians who have come to America are people, like you, maybe with different traditions,” he said. “They had to leave their homes because of terrorism, whether Assad, Daesh [Islamic State], Nusra or others. They have suffered violence like nobody else.”
“Don’t be the ones to make things worse for them.”