Syrian refugees fear backlash: ‘They don’t want us to stay here’

Syrian refugees Omran and Maram Wawieh, 11 and 8, play in the courtyard of the Pomona motel where their family is staying.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Three years ago, Khadija Aloush fled the fighting in Syria for Denmark, where she found anything but a warm welcome.

At the market or bus stops, people would step away from the 41-year-old hairstylist and her family to avoid them. If she smiled or waved at Danish children, their parents sometimes would snatch them back. Her family’s apartment was ransacked twice. When offered a chance to settle in the United States three months ago, Aloush thought the nightmare would end.

It didn’t.

Now living in Kansas City, Mo., Aloush and her 14-year-old daughter are afraid to wear their head scarves or go to the local mosque. In the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks that killed at least 129 people and injured hundreds, she’s afraid to go to the grocery store without her brother, Shero Alloush, 38, who runs a local sweet shop.


“I live in fear,” she said in Arabic as her brother translated. “It started the same way in Denmark.”

Viewed with sympathy this summer as thousands tried to reach Europe in unseaworthy boats, many of the more than 1,600 Syrian refugees who have won asylum in the United States now worry that the country that had seemed their best hope may not be prepared to welcome them.

“They were brought to this country to be relieved of their fears, not to inherit new ones,” said Khalilah Sabra, who helps Syrian refugees with their immigration cases.

Although no Syrian refugees have been tied to the Paris attacks, this week more than half of U.S. governors said they would refuse to allow Syrian refugees to immigrate to their states, citing concerns over security.

On Tuesday, Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) asked the House to vote as soon as this week on a bill to “pause” State Department plans to increase the number of Syrian refugees from 1,680 to 10,000 or more. “We cannot let terrorists take advantage of our compassion,” he said.

Syrian Lebanese immigrant Hussam Ayloush can only shake his head at such sentiments.

“When did such xenophobia become mainstream?” he said. “These are irresponsible comments about people who have seen the worst suffering on the planet since World War II.”

Ayloush, 45, arrived in the United States decades ago to attend the University of Texas at Austin. He once planned to return to Beirut, but is now executive director of the Greater Los Angeles Chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations.

“I know it sounds strange, but I fell in love with this country. People here embraced me for who I am. Everything about me was different from the average Texan — my face, my accent, my language,” he said. “For me, that is what America always represented.”

Now, in many corners of America, Muslims are afraid.

Khadija Aloush got a call Monday from her 20-year-old son, who is being held at an immigration detention center in California. He is seeking asylum, but now fears he will be deported.

She tried to reassure him, but she wasn’t so sure herself. Later, she asked her brother, “Do we have any chance to stay?”

Now it was his turn to do the calming.

“I told her this is a reaction to this news happening now and soon it will go away,” Shero Aloush said Tuesday. “I’m praying that it will go away. I don’t know if it will.”

Even after suffering a war in Syria and rebukes in Denmark, Khadija is not convinced she has found a permanent home in the United States.

“If the government decided not to protect us, who can undo that decision?” she said. “I came for a secure future. Now with what happened, I have no hope.”

Rahd, 32, fled Syria with her 2-year-old daughter a year ago. They claimed asylum, and were held at an immigrant detention center in Pennsylvania for about four months before they were released and settled in Boston.

She was not shocked to hear the Massachusetts governor was among those rejecting Syrian refugees. She lost her asylum case, and is appealing.

“They want to refuse Syrians and they do their best to refuse us,” said Rahd, who asked to be identified only by her first name, because her husband and mother are still in Syria. “They don’t want us to stay here.”

Rahd worked in the mortgage department of a bank in Damascus, and wishes Americans understood what it’s like not just to live without enough food and water, but in fear of bombing.

“Kids are dying in front of their parents’ eyes. If you go to work, you don’t know if you are coming back alive,” she said.

Elsewhere, Muslims already in the United States feel they’re being blamed for the terrorist attacks in Paris.

Sabra, director of the nonprofit Muslim American Society Immigrant Justice Center in Raleigh, N.C., says she’s received many phone calls from anxious refugees in recent days.

“They’re so afraid if they are going to be able to stay. Should they move? Is ICE going to pick them up?” she said, referring to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “From Texas to Alabama, the phone has been ringing off the hook. I wanted to give them some advice. All I could say was state law does not transcend federal law -- don’t go anywhere.”

Maher Jandari fled Syria two years ago with his wife and five children, first to Egypt and then, six months ago, as refugees resettled in Houston, where neighbors welcomed them.

With governors rejecting Syrian refugees this week, including the Texas governor, Jandari said, “I am just worried the American government will change their mind and deport us.”

Jandari, 45, had hoped to bring his relatives to the United States, including his mother, who fled to Saudi Arabia, and his brother, who fled to Germany.

A truck driver in Damascus, Jandari has been looking for work. His children are ages 4 to 13, and his eldest daughter is blind.

“I hope Americans will be kind enough to feel for us, to feel our suffering,” Jandari said in Arabic as a leader of the local Syrian American Club translated. “Will you penalize all the Syrians? If one student was bad, would you kick all the students out of school? They should not penalize the whole innocent population because somebody did something wrong.”

In San Diego, Taha Hassane, an imam with the local Islamic center, said one member was insulted in a supermarket by someone who believed she was sympathetic to terrorists, even though refugees and immigrants, like most Americans, reacted to the Paris attacks “with anger and outrage and sympathy for the victims,” he said.

Hassane has called for local Muslims to broaden their contacts with the wider community, not to pull back and become isolated. “There will be ignorant people, under the pressure of media stories and politicians, who will blame all refugees for Paris,” he said.

An immigrant from Algeria, Hassane noted that others support the refugee community. “We are receiving lots of emails and phone calls showing solidarity for our Islamic community.”

In Pasadena, members of All Saints Church are adopting a family of Syrian refugees who arrived in the United States from a Jordanian resettlement camp Thursday, one day before the Paris attacks.

As controversy swirled around them, the family of four -- with a newborn on the way -- shopped for clothes. It was their first such venture in three years.

“Jesus says to love your neighbor,” said the Rev. Susan Russell, a spokeswoman for the Episcopal church. “And there’s no asterisk that says, ‘unless you’re a Syrian refugee.’”

For others with refugee pasts, the current climate stirs troubling memories.

“Refugees worldwide are victims -- victims of violence, of xenophobia. We cannot be safe here without wanting them to experience safety, too,” said Duc Nguyen, 51, a boat refugee who fled communist Vietnam in 1980 with his parents and brother and later won an Emmy Award for a film he made about the boat people saga.

12:27 p.m.: An earlier version of this article said Duc Nguyen made an Emmy Award-winning film on his experiences while fleeing Vietnam by boat in 1980. The film actually focused on the larger boat people saga.

“People were asking, ‘If we welcome Syrians, are we opening our borders for ISIS to come in?’” he said, referring to Islamic State, the militant group that has claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks. “They don’t understand that we all are humans.”

His wife, Dr. Mai-Phuong Nguyen, the chief medical officer at Southland Health Center in Garden Grove, which serves large immigrant populations, agreed.

“How can we, as privileged former refugees, living and breathing freedom, pass judgment on those desperate for help?” she asked. “What we must do is act.”

Fouad Wawieh’s family of eight lives in a Pomona hotel, awaiting word of relatives in Syria. Each week, he hears of another relative who has died in the violence back home.

“It’s never far from my mind,” he said of the war.

But Wawieh, 45, now faces another war of opinion here in the United States. He’s upset over all the talk of barring Syrian refugees.

“We are literally escaping terror ourselves, the terror of Assad and his military,” he said, alluding to Syrian President Bashar Assad. “With statements like that, they’re really casting a death sentence on the Syrians.”

Who thought America would turn out like this?

“It is a challenge against the values of this country, the values of freedom and human rights, democracy,” he said. “How come they hold these values, and when it comes to Syrians, they don’t apply to us?”

He also notes a cultural irony. In Syria, he said, “we are known for our hospitality. Our tradition is if someone welcomes you into his home, you never do anything to disrespect that house. We are in America, which has opened its doors. We would never disrespect or betray that hospitality.”

Los Angeles Times staff writers Anh Do and Tony Perry contributed to this report.


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