Getting a visa to the United States is notoriously hard, especially when you are from a country embroiled in a civil war that also happens to be looked down upon by Congress.
One might think that need not apply, however, to Raed Saleh, the head of Syria’s Civil Defense Units, a USAID-funded project also known as the White Helmets. After flying from Istanbul to Dulles Airport outside of Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, the 33-year-old Saleh was told his visa was canceled. He was scheduled to receive a humanitarian award from InterAction, a D.C.-based NGO.
The White Helmets are made up of more than 2,800 civilians who act similarly to a volunteer Red Cross. They respond to bombings in war torn Syria and claim they have rescued more than 40,000 people since hostilities began five years ago. USAID has provided the White Helmets with more than $20 million in monetary aid since 2013.
“When I arrived in Washington, DC, they told me my visa had already been canceled so I should go back to Turkey ‘where I came from,’” Saleh told Business Insider on Tuesday.
While there are no clear indications that Islamophobia or anti-Muslim sentiment were at play, Saleh’s visa rejection recalls an incident that happened earlier this month when an Iraqi refugee was booted from a plane for arousing fellow passengers’ suspicion by speaking Arabic on board. Despite the customs agents’ claims that Saleh’s visa had expired, his translator Zouheir Albounni, who is also an employee of a USAID implementer that supports the White Helmets, said that all visa-related issues had been prearranged to hasten Saleh’s entry process.
“According to Albounni, Saleh’s visa is valid until September 2016, and he had not been notified by any entity that it had expired,” an FAQ compiled by InterAction and and Relief International reads. “Albounni added that Saleh was holding a letter from USAID to facilitate his entry with US customs and immigration.”