Many Syrians in US fear they are no longer welcome
By MOLLY HENNESSY-FISKE, CHRISTINE MAI-DUC AND JOHN M. GLIONNA | Los Angeles Times | Published: November 18, 2015
LOS ANGELES (Tribune News Service) — 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. Their apartment was ransacked twice. When offered a chance to settle in the United States three months ago, Aloush thought the nightmare would end.
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 terror attacks that killed 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 U.S. 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.
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 asked the House to vote as soon as this week on a bill to “pause” State Department plans to such 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.”
Now 45, Ayloush arrived in the U.S. 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 Shero, “Do we have any chance to stay?”
Now it was Shero’s turn to do the calming.
“I told her this is a reaction to this news happening now and soon it will go away,” he 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, Aloush is not convinced she has found a permanent home in the U.S.
“If the government decided not to protect us, who can undo that decision?” Khadija Aloush said. “I came for a secure future. Now with what happened, I have no hope.”
Elsewhere, Muslims already in the U.S. feel they’re being blamed for the terror attacks in Paris.
Sabra, director of the nonprofit Muslim American Society Immigrant Justice Center in Raleigh, N.C., said she has 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 of 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.”
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 with terrorists, even though refugees and immigrants, like all Americans, reacted to the Paris attack “with anger and outrage and sympathy for the victims.”
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 pointed out that others support the refugee community: “We are receiving lots of emails and phone calls showing solidarity for our Islamic community.”
In Pasadena, Calif., members of the All Saints Church are adopting a family of Syrian refugees who arrived in the U.S. from a Jordanian resettlement camp last 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 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 from who fled communist Vietnam in 1980 with his parents and brother and later won an Emmy Award for a film he made of his exploits.
“People were asking, ‘If we welcome Syrians, are we opening our borders for ISIS to come in?’ 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, Calif., which serves the heavy Southern California 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, Calif., hotel, awaiting word of relatives back in Syria. Each week, he hears of another cousin or 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 U.S. 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 of President Bashar Assad. “With statements like that, they’re really casting a death sentence on the Syrians.”
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.”
Times staff writers Anh Do and Tony Perry contributed to this report.
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