Syr­ian refugees in US fear for those left be­hind

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

CHICAGO: Sit­ting on a do­nated couch in her mod­est Chicago apart­ment, Safa Mshymish knows she is among the lucky ones: A Syr­ian refugee wel­comed into the United States be­fore the tide of pub­lic opin­ion turned. It hurts, she said, to hear politi­cians are try­ing to stop fam­i­lies just like hers from find­ing a safe haven, brand­ing all Syr­i­ans a se­cu­rity threat in the wake of the Paris at­tacks. “Just like any mother who loves her chil­dren and wants to see them sleep peace­fully, so do I. Just like any mother wants to feed her chil­dren, so do I,” she said. They must not re­al­ize, she said, that like her these are peo­ple forced from their homes - con­sumed with worry for the loved ones left be­hind. This is what she would tell them all, if she could. As her Amer­i­can neigh­bors pre­pare to cel­e­brate Thanks­giv­ing with their fam­i­lies on Thurs­day, Mshymish, 27, longs for a home­land that no longer ex­ists. They had a good life be­fore the war be­gan. They were com­fort­able, safe and happy, sur­rounded by fam­ily and friends.

Her hus­band went to a cou­ple of demon­stra­tions in the early, peace­ful days of the protest move­ment against Pres­i­dent Bashar AlAs­sad’s regime, but mostly stayed out of the in­ten­si­fy­ing con­flict. Un­til a car full of “thugs” drove up and opened fire as he sat at a cafe with five friends in Homs on Oct 15, 2011. “I was the only one who sur­vived. Ev­ery­body else was killed,” Is­mil Al­rife, 38, told AFP.

Watch­ing his friends die on the street was just the be­gin­ning, as fear came to shadow their days. Now that Al­rife was in­jured - the bul­lets sev­ered the main nerve in his right leg and he needs a cane to walk - they were afraid he would be­come a tar­get for the regime, in­dis­crim­i­nate in round­ing up po­ten­tial “trou­ble­mak­ers”. Try­ing to leave was also dan­ger­ous. So they stayed, even as the war in­ten­si­fied, mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble for their three chil­dren to go to school and dif­fi­cult to even buy gro­ceries. Then a mis­sile struck their apart­ment build­ing. As the walls crum­bled around them, they flung their chil­dren un­der the bed and prayed. They es­caped with their lives, and lit­tle else.

Moon­light Es­cape

The fam­ily of five joined a steady stream of refugees weav­ing their way through the wartorn coun­try, reach­ing the bor­der with Jor­dan in July 2012. They waited for dark­ness to fall and walked 40 km though the moun­tains in hopes of avoid­ing Syr­ian pa­trols. Af­ter more than two years in Jor­dan, they were given clear­ance to em­i­grate to the United States, ar­riv­ing in Chicago dur­ing one of its cold­est win­ters ever. The chil­dren - now aged 11, 9, 6 and 20 months - have had an eas­ier time ad­just­ing to the new lan­guage and cul­ture.

They are learn­ing English at school and, like gen­er­a­tions of im­mi­grants be­fore them, some­times act as in­ter­preters for their par­ents. “We feel very happy to be here and be safe, but at the same time it’s not easy for any­one to leave home,” Mshymish said. The United States has ad­mit­ted fewer than 2,180 Syr­ian refugees out of the nearly 4.3 mil­lion who have regis­tered with the United Na­tions since the con­flict be­gan in 2011. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama pledged to re­set­tle 10,000 more in the next year, but Syr­ian refugees have be­come a po­lit­i­cal foot­ball in the wake of the Nov 13 at­tacks which killed 130 in Paris.

More than half of state gov­er­nors op­pose host­ing any more Syr­i­ans and the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives voted to ban refugees from ei­ther Syria or Iraq with­out tougher screen­ing mea­sures - to pre­vent ji­hadists pos­ing as refugees from slip­ping into the West to stage at­tacks.

‘De­spi­ca­ble’ Back­lash

Suzanne Akhras Sahloul, di­rec­tor of the Syr­ian Com­mu­nity Net­work non-profit group, called the back­lash against refugees “de­spi­ca­ble” - com­ing against a back­drop of an­tiMus­lim rhetoric from sev­eral Re­pub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates. “I’m very dis­ap­pointed in our coun­try,” said Sahloul, whose group helps refugees ad­just to life in the United States. “What hap­pened to us that we are now clos­ing our doors to peo­ple who are es­cap­ing ter­ror­ism, trauma and death?”

Chicago - one of the na­tion’s largest, most di­verse cities - has wel­comed just 18 fam­i­lies of Syr­ian refugees. Most live within walk­ing dis­tance of the Al­rife fam­ily in a bustling im­mi­grant neigh­bor­hood where shop­keep­ers speak Ara­bic and sell the thick, strong cof­fee that re­minds them of home. Ab­dul­lah Taha, 44, ar­rived with his wife and three chil­dren in Septem­ber. The former taxi driver was im­pris­oned for a month af­ter driv­ing some cus­tomers into the wrong neigh­bor­hood of Da­m­as­cus in Dec 2011.

He said he was tor­tured by the regime while his des­per­ate fam­ily, fear­ing the worst, searched the streets for his body. Taha fled to Le­banon soon af­ter his re­lease, but found life there too “chaotic”. He said he was grate­ful to the kind peo­ple who made his fam­ily feel wel­come in Chicago. But his days are filled with fears for his par­ents, sib­lings and all those trapped in Syria. And he strug­gles to con­tain his anger when he hears refugees branded as ter­ror­ists.

“I get very up­set when some peo­ple or can­di­dates for the US elec­tion, they in­vent any­thing to use it dur­ing the elec­tion, any­thing, and they tar­nish our im­age,” he told AFP. “It’s not the re­al­ity, we’re not like this,” he said. “I would give my life to them just to prove that those mil­lions of Syr­i­ans are in­no­cent and have noth­ing to do with ter­ror­ism.”

— AFP

CHICAGO: Syr­ian refugees Safa Mshymish and Is­mil Al­rife sit with their chil­dren Rama, Noor, Malath and Ameer in their apart­ment on Nov 20, 2015.

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