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‘I think about tomorrow’: A Syrian refugee family begins a new life in Virginia
By Sarah King and Hiba Ahmad
Capital News Service
RICHMOND, Va. – At the center of a suburban neighborhood on the outskirts of Richmond’s city limits, a collection of small white houses sit quietly. Outside, the taut winter air is split open by a group of grade-school children streaking past each other in relentless pursuit of a soccer ball, shouting breathlessly in their native tongues.
The scene seems unassuming enough – but for many inhabitants inside these dwellings, the view posits a stark contrast to what they once knew. Located mere miles from downtown Richmond, the cluster of modest houses have not yet become homes for many of their tenants: refugees who recently resettled in Richmond, many from war-torn parts of North Africa and the Middle East.
Inside one such residence sat Khalid, a Syrian refugee, who depicted the journey he, his wife and their two young children, Muna and Muhammad, endured in fleeing the country’s civil war. In the interest of their safety, Khalid asked his family’s last names not be used.
“We saw everything,” Khalid said, speaking through translator Ahmed Abdeen. “What Americans see on TV is not even 1 percent of what is actually happening (in Syria).”
For Khalid and his family, the arduous journey to the United States began in December 2012. They arrived in Richmond – having endured repeated losses, displacement and hardships – nearly four years later, in late November.
The middle-aged man maintained a sober expression while explaining his family’s journey, but seemed as if he had finally found some peace. He rarely expressed signs of distress, but emotion crept into his voice when he described the aftermath of missile attacks and use of chemical weapons deployed by the Syrian government against its own citizens.
In the months since their arrival, Khalid’s family has been doing their best to settle into the new neighborhood, but that hasn’t been without its own set of hurdles.
“The language barrier is what prevents me from finding work and connecting with the community,” Khalid said. “The Muslim community here does what they can, but I just wish I had a stable job to get back on my feet.”
Khalid and his family were resettled through a United Nations program that provides two months of rent assistance, food stamps, $25 per child and access to English classes. But Khalid said his family’s two months are expired, and he is desperately seeking work to maintain a roof over his family’s head.
The situation presents a callous irony.
The Syrian civil war Khalid’s family fled from has cost many citizens much more than just their shelter. The conflict has prompted the deaths for upward of a half million people and displaced nearly 11 million more, according to statistics by the European Union.
“Imagine going out with your family to get groceries and coming home to find everything that you know completely destroyed,” Khalid said of the crisis that has catalyzed global conversations about terrorism and national security.
A travel ban or ‘Muslim ban’?
On Jan. 27, President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Syria. Trump’s repeated justification for the order has been in defense of national security and anti-terrorism efforts.
“The seven countries named in the Executive Order are the same countries previously identified by the Obama administration as sources of terror,” Trump said in a Jan. 29 White House statement.
Trump and other senior administration officials have repeatedly denied the executive action is a “Muslim ban,” although such claims have been met with skepticism. Kevin Lewis, spokesperson for former President Barack Obama, released a statement in response to the White House on Jan. 30.
“With regard to comparisons to President Obama’s foreign policy decisions, as we’ve heard before, the President fundamentally disagrees with the notion of discriminating against individuals because of their faith or religion,” Lewis said.
Trump’s executive order barred anyone traveling from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Libya from entering the U.S. for 90 days. It also suspended the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days, and Syrian refugees were banned indefinitely from entering the country.
“The intervening variable in this entire discussion is how much weight the federal courts will give to the various comments the Trump administration made before and after the EO was issued, indicating there would be a different standard for Christians from those seven countries and that Islamists were being targeted,” John Aughenbaugh, a constitutional law scholar and political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said in an email.
Indeed, the courts have expressed skepticism over Trump’s executive order. A federal judge in Seattle, Washington, issued an injunction against the travel, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision on Feb. 9.
So the Trump administration is drafting a new version of the order that would exempt dual citizens, visa and green card holders from the travel restrictions.
“Of all the missteps made by the Trump administration in issuing this order, these public comments indicating that Muslims would be treated differently and vetted with a different process than Christians from those seven countries might be the key factor in how the federal courts treat the challengers’ claims,” Aughenbaugh said.
‘Stars were replaced with dust and ashes’
Khalid said many of his family members had plans to seek asylum in the States, but have put their plans on hold indefinitely in response to the ban.
He pulled out his phone and pressed play on a video recorded by a Syrian news outlet. The footage depicted a flattened building amidst hundreds of piles of rubble.
Khalid said the night of the siege it had been relatively clear, but the “stars were replaced with dust and ashes” after missiles dropped from the sky and the evening’s calm was disrupted by syncopated screams and sirens.
He glanced up from the screen and explained that he had been in the building next door to the one reduced to a mountain of rubble that night.
Charlie Schmidt, legal counsel and public policy associate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said the ACLU will continue holding the U.S. government accountable when it infringes on the rights of citizens and noncitizens alike.
The ACLU took Trump’s executive order to court the night it was issued, resulting in a New York judge granting an emergency stay on the ban for those in transit. Washington – eventually joined by additional states, including Virginia – similarly sued the administration, which resulted in the current, nationwide stay on the ban.
“Why does the ACLU defend non-citizens? Easy – it is the right thing to do.” Schmidt said. “Justice and equality in our country does not depend on citizenship status.”
Khalid emphasized it’s time for people to critically consider what refugees are running away from when seeking asylum in the U.S. and Europe. He recounted lesser-known horrors of the civil war – ones he said reporters seem to overlook completely.
Nights in the Middle East are characterized by calm, cool air deficient of much humidity or wind – but the benign weather, he said, is the perfect setting to launch chemical weapons, a tactic Bashar Al-Assad’s regime has been accused of using against its own citizens.
Khalid’s gesturing hands accented his blank expression as he recounted how gas from the chemical weapons would softly sink to the floors at night and easily snake through sleeping homes and buildings.
“Think about the families,” Khalid said, his eyes softening as they flitted in the direction of his toddler-aged children. “I only have two kids, but some families have five or six. Their lives are being destroyed.”
William Newmann, a national security scholar and professor of political science at VCU, said the number of Syrian refugees who have launched terrorist attacks in the U.S. stands at zero. Since Sept. 11, 2001, roughly 100 people have been killed in U.S.-based attacks by foreign-influenced terrorists, all perpetrated by U.S.-born terrorists, he said.
“There is simply no pattern suggesting that recent immigrants or refugees are the current terrorist threat in the U.S.,” Newmann said.
‘All I’m thinking about is tomorrow’
When recalling Syria, Khalid said he tries to focus on the fond memories he has of his beloved country. A look of longing clouded his expression as he described the construction company his family owned that built homes on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria’s capital city. Now, he explained, his sister, brother and wife’s family are scattered across the Middle East having found refuges in countries like Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.
“Is there anyone who doesn’t love or miss their family?” Khalid said. “Everyone I grew up with, my memories, my life – it’s still all (in Syria).”
He described the acres of land his family owned when he was a boy. Outside, the soccer ball – still swathed in the lively banter between the children chasing it – thudded audibly to the ground. A smile tugged faintly at the periphery of Khalid’s tired face; he paused briefly to conjure memories of running through his family’s fields with his siblings.
“You could go anywhere in Syria and find family. You always had a home and community to turn to,” Khalid said. “I wished for better treatment and support from the (U.S.) government. In Syria, you had support and help everywhere no matter who you were.”
Initially, Khalid said he left Syria for a refugee camp in Lebanon in search of work, but he soon realized his children would not be granted citizenship, and would thus be deprived of a sustainable future, due to their refugee status.
“Your children can attend some of the best schools and go as far as becoming doctors in Lebanon, but you will not be granted citizenship,” Khalid said. “This holds you back from ever having a real job – a real life.”
Discouraged, Khalid made his way back to his family in Syria, and they again tried to make the best of their situation despite the tumultuous state of the nation. He and his wife made their final decision to seek refuge in Jordan shortly after the conflict ensured that all work, travel and business was ground to a complete halt in Syria.
In Jordan, the family was admitted to a United Nations refugee camp and placed in the resettlement database. It took six months for them to be resettled permanently in the U.S. on Nov. 29 – just 20 days after Hillary Clinton conceded the 45th presidency to Trump, her Republican opponent.
Khalid said he expected better from the U.S. government considering how difficult it was to enter through the country’s extensive vetting procedures – even long before the Trump administration took office last month. He said his family was extremely lucky; due to various obstacles facing families, some at the camp in Jordan had been awaiting permanent resettlement for as long as two years.
As Khalid shared the story of his family’s journey to America, his daughter Muna and son Muhammad scurried around the room on their bicycles. Both children had their mother’s big eyes and father’s kind smile.
“All I’m thinking about is tomorrow and the kids,” Khalid said. “God willing everything works out in the future, but as of now, I think about tomorrow.”