WASHINGTON, DC — Eiad Charbaji is one of the lucky ones. For the last two years, he has called Fairfax, Va. his home, even as his native Syria continues to burn. Charbaji is one of the very few Syrians to make their way to the United States amid the civil war, as more than six million of his compatriots and their families have been forced to flee the ongoing civil war.
When the protests that would later evolve into a conflict that has killed well over 100,000 first began in 2011, Charbaji was a journalist living in Damascus with his wife, Ola Malas, and then-infant daughter. It was only months into the demonstrations that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his government opted to use force to try to quell the dissent. Charbaji was arrested and tortured. Malas, also a journalist, had her life threatened. So too was their daughter’s life held up as a possible price for the Charbajis continuing to report and take part in the protests. All around him, friends and family were finding themselves targets of the Assad regime.
“It was very dangerous for life and my family’s life,” the thirty-six year old Syrian said during an interview with ThinkProgress, gray hairs peppering his beard. There was, fortunately for him, a way out when he was released from prison. Just prior to the start of the protests, he had been granted a visa to travel to the United States from the State Department, as part of their International Visitor Leadership Program. Charbaji set out from Syria, on foot, to cross into Jordan where he was able to book a flight to the safety of the U.S. While he originally considered returning to Jordan, he soon thereafter applied for and was granted — with the help of the State Department and Center for Protection of Journalists — asylum status for the knowledge that he would face severe persecution upon a return to Syria.
His family would have to wait, as the visa was for him alone. None of his relatives that had the chance to leave remained in Syria for long, taking flight to escape the country. Of his six brothers, two have made it to Lebanon along with their mother, with another in Egypt, and a fourth in Turkey. A fifth brother has disappeared within Syria. The last, Marun, was killed when a rocket destroyed his home. As for his immediate household, after his escape, Malas bribed a Syrian officer to get herself and her daughter to Saudi Arabia, where they would await Eiad’s call to come to the United States in her brother’s home.
Charbaji filed the paperwork to have them follow immediately after his own asylum status, leaving him nothing to do but wait. One month turned into two. Two turned into four. Twenty months passed before his family would be reunited in the United States. There was no problem with the documents he submitted in the application, Charbaji said, and he checked in frequently with the State Department in anticipation of news about his family’s status. “The process is very, very, very long,” Charbaji said in his halting English. “I don’t know why. It was very hard for me.”
The Syrian journalist was in the audience — along with two others fortunate enough to have made it to the U.S. — at last months’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing into the plight of Syria’s refugees and displaced. Last year, only 36 of the nearly 70,000 newly admitted refugees to the United States were from Syria. And while several hundred Syrians who were present on temporary visas are being granted safe haven, only a few hundred new refugees from the civil war that has roiled the Middle East are expected to be allowed into the U.S. in the current fiscal year. In comparison, there are currently 2.3 million refugees being housed in the countries neighboring Syria, according to the United Nations.
About 1,300 Syrians have currently applied for asylum status, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security Mollie Groom told the panel at the time. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) lamented the low number of Syrians who had made it through the oft-Byzantine immigration process, frequently for matters beyond their control. “One issue that needs to be addressed is the overly broad prohibition in our immigration law that excludes any refugee who has provided any kind of support to an army rebel group, even a group we in the United States support,” he explained in his opening statement. “This would prevent a Syrian who gave a cigarette or sandwich to a free Syrian Army soldier from receiving refugee status in the United States despite the fact that the United States is providing assistance to the Free Syrian Army.”
“As the Syrian conflict enters its fourth year, it is clear that the refugee crisis is likely to continue for some time,” he continued. “While there may be differences about how to resolve the conflict, there should be no disagreement that it is a moral and national security imperative to do all we can to help alleviate the suffering of innocent Syrian refugees.”
Charbaji and his family managed to avoid the massive refugee camps of Lebanon and Jordan or the displacement camps within Syria that are being starved as a punishment for their support of the opposition. Instead, Charbaji, Malas and their daughter make their home amid a sizable Syrian community in Virginia. Charbaji is learning English at a local community college and writing some still for Arabic-language publications. His Facebook page, on which he posts about the Syrian revolution, has more than 40,000 followers. He and his wife both had savings from their time in Syria to help them make the transition.
But it’s still not easy. Social services for those granted asylum status are sparse, Charbaji explained, and does not include health insurance for his daughter. The application he and his wife submit to get the four year-old into day care has also gone unanswered for the past two months, leaving Manas unable to search for work as she cares for the child. “I hope if American government take more action for asylee,” he said. “Not for us, not for me, I’ve been here for two years, and depend on myself. But the new ones coming from the area.”
As for his country of birth, until U.S. leaders take a stronger stance on Syria, Charbaji believes, the country will continue to fall apart. “I think we need political action, not aid,” he said. “The Syrian crisis isn’t just a humanitarian crisis. […] If Bashar Assad is gone, Syrians can come back to Syria and you will spend less money for that.” As the first round of the Geneva II talks between the government and opposition ended last week, however, it looks as though Assad will continue to hold onto power for at least the near future. And so Charbaji and his family will in turn continue to wait for a day when they can return home.