In welcoming Syrian refugees, Rep. Norma Torres sees a bit of herself

Rep. Norma Torres (D-Pomona) walked through the carpeted prayer room at the Islamic Center of Claremont in her bare feet, pausing to meet with members of two Syrian families who arrived in Southern California this fall.

The stories she heard from the Kanjou and Wawieh families, about fleeing the violence of Syria and journeying through Lebanon and Egypt before arriving in Pomona, were familiar.

Torres came from war-torn Guatemala to live with an uncle in Los Angeles when she was five years old.

"I see myself in them," the lawmaker told the Los Angeles Times Wednesday. "I see what my parents probably saw in sending me here, to live with what were, for me, strangers."

The current Syrian refugees, she said, "are not the bogeyman they have been made out to be."

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The welcoming party for the two families doubled as a rally of sorts, with Torres and others voicing anger over politicians who -- in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks -- have opposed accepting more Syrian refugees into the United States. 

Torres blasted a House-passed bill that would tighten restrictions on Syrian refugees, saying it lacked "American integrity." 

Forty-seven Democrats, including eight from California, voted with Republicans to pass the bill last week. 

One of the newly arrived refugees, Mostafa Kanjou, sat down next to Torres with two of his children: Maram, 9, and Omran, 12.

A carpenter from Homs, Kanjou has been doing construction jobs since coming to the U.S. Through a translator, he said he was enjoying work, especially his commute along historic Route 66 in Pomona.  

Outside of the center, Fouad Wawieh, his wife and six children opened gifts donated by local groups and ate a breakfast of falafel, humus and olives with Torres and members of the Claremont Interfaith Council. 

Wawieh is still looking for work, he said through a translator. His son  Omar is enrolled at Mt. San Antonio College.

"It's not that we want people to tolerate refugees -- we want people to get to know them and to see the opportunities that they come with, to help our communities too," Torres said.

On Tuesday the California Endowment said it would make small emergency relief grants available to community-based organizations around the state that assist Syrian refugees settling in California. 

“This is a moment to stand up for our values as Americans,” said Dr. Robert K. Ross, the chief executive of the California Endowment.

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