Motaz Alafandi is Syrian and Muslim. He says he’s not a terrorist and that he isn’t associated with the Islamic State. He arrived in the United States a year ago escaping, precisely, from terror.
In 2011, the Bashar al-Assad government confined him to a government jail in Damascus and tortured him for having participated in a street demonstration that demanded “freedom.”
Alafandi now lives in Richardson, a residential suburb northeast of Dallas, Texas, the state that ranks second in taking in the most Syrian refugees since the beginning of the civil war in 2011, according to State Department statistics.
He is frightened by the thought of being expelled from the country, after some thirty governors – mostly Republicans – announced their refusal to receive new Syrians after the Paris attacks on Friday, November 13th.
“It saddens me when I hear people say we shouldn’t be allowed to enter the United States. They don’t understand we’re innocent people escaping torture and death, wanting to help our families survive,” says this 47-year-old man from Syria.
The tranquility of the apartment where he lives with his wife and three of his four children does not reflect the harshness of their recent past or the long journey the family endured in order to get here.
In the new home, everything they have comes from donations: the wooden dining room table, the beige sofas in the living room, little Sami’s youth bed, the clock showing 8 o’clock that evening. They left everything they had behind: a house in Harasta (northeast of Damascus), a cosmetics factory, their mothers, their fathers and their siblings.
Screening after Screening
During the last fiscal year, the United States received 1,682 Syrians, a small figure compared to the 70,000 refugees, which this country has taken in annually since 2012, coming from different countries.
United States President Barack Obama has promised furthermore that by 2016 another 10,000 Syrians will be admitted. Germany expects to receive 500,000 refugees per year.
They are all fleeing from a civil war that began in 2011, and has left more than 200,000 people dead, according to the UN.
It is a conflict attributed to Al-Assad – classified as a “dictator” by President Obama – with about a thousand rebel groups in a complicated jigsaw puzzle that keeps the Arab country fragmented.
But the international community’s cooperation with the Syrians grew complicated. The attacks by the ISIS terrorist group in Paris, where 130 people died, set off a feeling of insecurity among some citizens and politicians.
In addition to the governors’ stance, on Thursday the 19th, the House of Representatives, where there is a Republican majority, passed a bill aimed at suspending the acceptance of Syrians. It awaits a vote in the Senate, and faces the threat of Obama’s veto.
“But why are they afraid of us?” Alafandi asks herself. “We’re only looking for a safe place to live.”
“I don’t think it’s fair. Not all Syrians are terrorists. We only want to live and educate our children,” replies his wife.
Now, in Texas, Alafandi works as a parking valet at a building in downtown Dallas. He gets there at 3 in the afternoon and gets out at 12 o’clock midnight. Sometimes, in order to earn extra money, he covers the work shift of his fellow workers and gets home at 3 o’clock in the morning.
His immigration situation is uncertain. In February, he and his wife applied for Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which allows people that have fled armed conflicts in their countries to work here.
But the post office lost the much-awaited documents. Again, they had to fill out the forms and pay the fees. “Without that, nobody wants to hire me,” laments his wife, Alia Alrefai, a teacher of Arabic.
Even before the attacks in Paris, asylum and refugee applicants from Syria were already being submitted to rigorous evaluations in order to be approved, explains Sara Kauffman, Director of Refugee Services in Houston. “It’s one of the hardest ways to enter the United States. There are people who have had to wait up to two years to complete the process.”
In a briefing published last November 19th on the State Department website, Simon Henshaw, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, explained the “intense” security screenings to which the Syrian refugees are being summited.
Their files are categorized and go through the hands of the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI Terrorist Screening Center, and the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the Defense Department.
In interviews conducted abroad, they must provide biographic details that include their family history, friends, social activities, politics and employments, among other questions. They may enter the United States only after all the screening has taken place.
“There are four million Syrians registered as refugees. When you hear that number and see that in Texas only 200 have been accepted, you feel really frustrated,” Kauffman explains.
The long journey to Dallas
For 14 years, Alafandi lived in Saudi Arabia and worked as a sales manager at an advertisement firm. In 2011, when his contract expired, he lost his resident status in that country. He then began to look for new destinations. Going back to Syria, the country that tortured him during one of his family visits, was not an option.
“I wanted to go to Europe,” the man explains. But in order to do so they took the longer way following a friend’s recommendation: first they travelled as tourists to the United States, where they stayed one week. From there they went to Sweden, where they applied for political asylum through the intermediary action of a coyote (a human trafficker).
“We were rejected because we were supposed to apply for asylum at the first safe country where we arrived,” Alafandi explains. In initiating the procedure they only used their Syrian identification and not their passports. “We did what the human trafficker told us to do, but the Swedish government said that it generated suspicions that we may be hiding something.” They then returned to the United States.
“Somebody in Canada told us about an agreement between the two countries. He explained to us that the only exception to this agreement was for minors,” he says. Then, following this recommendation, they sent his 17-year-old daughter Yara. The original idea was to have her apply for asylum and, once accepted, the rest of the family would do the same thing. “We were rejected,” he again laments.
“We’re now trapped here, and she’s trapped over there.” They await the response concerning her asylum and her work permit. Three times she has been denied a US visitors visa based on the suspicion that she might want to stay. It’s been a year since they embraced their daughter Yara.
“Sometimes I feel I’m not going to accomplish this, I see very little hope,” he explains. He then thinks that “it’s a matter of time,” stands up and continues his journey toward a new life in the United States. “We don’t know when this is going to end.”