Three years ago, Nidal Hajomar was living in Aleppo, the largest city in Syria. The country’s civil war, which had broken out in 2011, had started to spread to his hometown, and soon, the violence was just two miles from the house he shared with his wife and three sons.
“I could see helicopters above me, I could hear the fighting, and sometimes I saw missiles in the sky,” said Hajomar. “I couldn’t sleep.”
He knew the violence was going to get worse, so he saw only one option — to leave. Hajomar’s friend lent him a car, and the family — each person carrying one small bag each — drove 40 miles through the mountains to the Turkish border and then flew from Istanbul to Los Angeles.
“I thought I would go back after six months,” he said.
But the fighting intensified, preventing Hajomar, 57, from returning. And he was not alone: The United Nations has estimated that out of a total population of 22.8 million, 6.5 million Syrians were displaced from their homes by 2014. An additional 200,000 have been killed.
The Hajomars settled in Anaheim, where Nidal and his wife, Suher, started the popular Brookhurst Street restaurant Aleppo’s Kitchen, which serves favorite dishes from their hometown, such as kibbeh, falafel, stuffed grape leaves and hummus.
Unlike most Syrians, Hajomar and his family have one important advantage — dual citizenship with the United States, which gives them the freedom to remain in this country. But for millions of others, escape from the war has meant languishing in refugee camps in Turkey, daring dangerous boat rides to Europe or seeking refugee status in other countries.
Yet many U.S. politicians are now trying to make it harder for those displaced by the Syrian civil war to find safety in the United States. Governors of at least 30 states have called for a halt in the resettlement of Syrian refugees, and on Thursday, House Republicans passed a bill to tighten restrictions on Syrian refugees trying to enter the country.
“I don’t want to cry in front of my kids,” said Hajomar, scrolling through “before” and “after” photos that reveal the extent of the destruction in Aleppo. “So I cry when everyone else is sleeping. God, this is not fair. People have suffered for almost five years and nobody cares. Where is the humanity?”
Hajomar is part of a chorus of local Arab and Muslim voices condemning the backlash against Syrian refugees that emerged after the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, which left at least 130 dead.
But while incidents have been reported in the U.S. — including threatening voice mails left at a Florida mosque and vandalism at a Texas mosque — Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations in Los Angeles, said no such episodes have been reported locally. Instead, he said, churches and other community groups have offered their support for Syrian refugees.
Ayloush said someone recently came to him with donations raised in a school for a local Syrian refugee family that had been featured on television. And Salam al-Marayati, president of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, pointed to the members of All Saints Church in Pasadena, who recently adopted a Syrian refugee family.
“In Southern California, so many churches have contacted us, offering their help,” said Ayloush. “Once they hear that there are refugees coming from Syria with their kids and families, immediately I get dozens of calls from individuals and organizations asking how they can help.”
Still, the Paris bombings’ apparent links to Syria have some people feeling uneasy.
As many as six of the assailants in the coordinated Islamic State terrorist assault were Europeans who had traveled to Syria, according to the New York Times. And the Washington Post reported that a supposed Syrian passport found near the body of one of the slain assailants bore the name of a Syrian national — though the document’s authenticity was being investigated — leading people to wonder if one of the terrorists could have been a Syrian refugee and whether terrorists could infiltrate the U.S. through the refugee program
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a presidential hopeful, said there should be a religious test for determining which refugees can enter the country and that Muslims should be barred while Christians are admitted. “There is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror,” he has been quoted as saying.
GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, meanwhile, said in an interview with NBC News on Thursday that he would support establishing a special database for American Muslims. He previously called for closing U.S. mosques deemed extremist.
For many local community leaders, this hysteria appears politically motivated.
“These politicians are shamelessly exploiting the world’s worst humanitarian disaster to advance their political careers,” said Ayloush. “They are joining ISIS and [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad in victimizing the Syrian people all over again.”
Many of the Republican presidential candidates, Ayloush said, are taking this stand simply to generate attention. “In order to do that, they need a boogey man,” he said. “Sometimes it’s Latinos, sometimes Chinese. Today, it’s the Muslims.”
Al-Marayati agreed. “Turning people back to their death chambers is morally reprehensible,” he said, adding that the Republicans’ attempt to draw lines between Islam and the West is “exactly the narrative that ISIS is promoting.”
But Rashad al-Dabbagh, co-founder and director of the Anaheim-based Arab American Civic Council, pointed out that while many politicians on the national stage are voicing opposition to Syrian refugees, a number of local leaders in Orange County are taking a stand to support them.
“They know our community,” said al-Dabbagh. “They visit our businesses and nonprofits, they come to our events and they know the good work and positive contributions that our communities have done all over the region.”
According to Ayloush, an estimated half a million Muslims live in the Greater Los Angeles region and nearly 175,000 reside in Orange County. The Arab community in Orange County, meanwhile, numbers at least 100,000, said al-Dabbagh. (Muslims embrace the religion of Islam but aren’t necessarily Arab.)
And of the 1,700 Syrian refugees who have resettled in the United States so far, only three fitting the strict definition of refugee reside in Orange County, according to the office of U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat.
On Thursday, Sanchez, whose district includes Anaheim and Santa Ana, delivered a floor speech against the Republican-backed bill to restrict refugees.
“These Syrian refugees are fleeing the same violence and chaos that we saw Daesh [another name for Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS or ISIL] inflict on Paris, Beirut and Baghdad last week,” she said, according to her office. “Refugees are not the enemy.”
“This is not a Muslim/non-Muslim issue,” added the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s al-Marayati. “It’s about those who believe in pluralism versus those who don’t.”
But for Hajomar, whose restaurant employs six Syrians who have escaped the war, the issue goes beyond acceptance of refugees. The United States’ top priority, he said, should be ending the war so that Syrians can live in their own homeland safely.
“If we bring 10,000 refugees over here, it’s nice of us to help them,” he said. “But I and most Syrians want refugees to stay over there, with help, so they can rebuild Syria.”
“My only hope is that our President Obama insists on making peace,” Hajomar added. “I’m begging you, Mr. President, stop the war as soon as possible.”