DEARBORN, MICHIGAN — The young woman paused, her face tightening as she forced herself to recall the nightmarish memory. Three years after leaving Syria for asylum in the United States, dark circles still hung under her eyes. She fidgeted with her red, white, and blue hijab for a moment, then reached for her infant daughter, who sat beside her playing idly with a smartphone.
“I saw it — it was under my balcony,” the young woman, Ghussoun al Hasan, said in Arabic. “It was in front of my eyes. I saw what happened. There were peaceful demonstrations. And then the army came and killed the people.”
“And it happened to my family, not just strangers — ” she said, stopping herself mid-sentence. She held her elbows tight as her eyes welled with tears, biting her lip as she waited several seconds before continuing. “I had a 27-year-old brother. He was photographing the protest and downloading it to YouTube. People were filming the army with their phones until…They killed him.”
“They killed him,” she repeated. “After that, we didn’t go outside.”
“I saw it — it was under my balcony. It was in front of my eyes … There were peaceful demonstrations. And then the army came and killed the people.”
Al Hasan’s brother is one of more than 200,000 people killed so far during the Syrian civil war, a horrific conflict that has ravaged the country since 2011. Birthed out of the largely nonviolent protest movement often called the Arab Spring, the ensuing clash between government forces and rebel militias spilled into other parts of the Middle East, creating a power vacuum and sparking the rise of murderous militant groups such as ISIS.
As the war swept the region, al Hasan and her family joined the roughly 12 million Syrians who have fled their homes to escape the bloodshed, around 4 million of whom became refugees by leaving the country. The exodus triggered a humanitarian crisis in Europe, where more than 750,000 refugees are expected to flood into the continent by year’s end. Other countries have also pitched in to help: Since 2012, the U.S. has accepted 2,174 Syrian refugees, and President Barack Obama plans to take an additional 10,000 more in the coming year.
But in the wake of the recent brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, France, some have demonized the refugees as potential ISIS agents, largely because one of the assailants in France was suspected of carrying a fake Syrian passport. Although none of the Paris attackers were actually Syrian refugees, 31 Republican and Democratic governors in the U.S. have publicly sworn to stop accepting Syrian refugees in their states, a threat they lack the constitutional authority to enact but which most justified as a necessary precaution to maintain security. Others, including GOP presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush, have suggested only accepting Christian refugees. By contrast, the French government announced last week plans to welcome some 30,000 refugees in 2016 — more than initially promised — and President Obama chastised the governors and other politicians at the G20 summit in Turkey.
Although some politicians insist ISIS agents could sneak in with refugees, everyday Syrians such as al Hasan know that the process to enter the United States is anything but easy — even for those running from unspeakable violence in their homeland. She is luckier than most: she was able to apply and receive asylum in the U.S., a distinction granted to people who are already in America but meet the definition of refugee — namely, someone who has been persecuted or fears they will be persecuted if they return to their home country. Although legally an “asylee,” she is part of the great outpouring of refugees from Syria.
ThinkProgress met with al Hasan this week at her home in Dearborn, Michigan, one of the larger communities of Syrian refugees in the country. We cannot independently verify all aspects of her story, but her portrayal closely matches several existing accounts of the Syrian refugee experience.
Flight from Damascus
Al Hasan said she was aware of violence brewing in her country throughout 2011, when she was living in Damascus, Syria’s capital, with her husband. But the combination of a massacre outside her window and the death of her brother changed her, and made her fear for her children.
“After that we were scared,” she said.
As demonstrations and violence surged throughout the city, al Hasan made the agonizing decision to flee to Yabroud, an area near the border with Lebanon and the hometown of her husband, a businessman. But even that short trip proved harrowing in an increasingly militarized Syria — especially for al Hasan, who was pregnant at the time.
“The whole way we stopped at checkpoints,” she said, noting that soldiers would often berate her and her children with “aggressive talk.”
“We were scared — from all the guns and tanks [and soldiers] trying to get us out of the car,” she said.
Even after they arrived Yabroud, al Hasan said things were far from safe. As lawlessness escalated throughout the country, reports abounded of thugs kidnapping children and holding them for ransom. Kidnapping civilians and children is a common tactic of militant groups throughout region — including ISIS, which uses the strategy as a grotesque money-making scheme.
“I had 2 kids and a baby, and I was scared someone would kidnap them,” she said, referring to her own children, the eldest of which is her son, now 11. Her daughter, dressed in pink and no older than 3, glanced up at her as she spoke. “I said enough, I should travel, I don’t want to stay here … [So] I took my kids to America.”
What followed were a series of arduous journeys throughout the Middle East and the United States, as al Hasan struggled to get visas for all her family members. Eventually, she and her husband were forced to reach a painful agreement in Lebanon in 2012: al Hasan would return to America with the children, and her husband would venture to Cyprus.
At the time, both thought the distance would be temporary. Arab Spring demonstrations had already toppled authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Tunisia for brief periods, and there was hope that Syrian protesters could unseat Bashar al-Assad, the country’s notoriously oppressive leader, and usher in a new era of democratic change.
“[I thought I would] stay for 6 or 7 months, that tomorrow the war will end and a new president will come — like in Egypt or Tunisia — and we’ll go back,” she said.
But change did not come; only more violence. Eventually, after the death of her father in Turkey, al Hasan realized that returning home was unlikely, if not impossible. Frightened and out of options, she became determined to find a way to remain in America.
Once al Hasan decided to stay in the United States, she began the lengthy, exhausting process of applying for asylum. The system required her to go before an immigration officer, where she was forced to relive the painful reasons for her flight from Syria in order to prove that she cannot return home.
This included presenting the judge with images of her dead brother, as well as video evidence of his brutal killing. Because his death was covered by news outlets such as Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, she was able to offer evidence of his murder, as well as additional clips posted to YouTube by Syrian protesters.
“I brought everything,” she said. “I had to give them proof and couldn’t lie. I told [them] what happened to me…They asked about my family, where I lived in Turkey, information on my parents — everything, all the details.”
The entire process took roughly three and a half months, but eventually a judge in Michigan granted her asylum status and a green card, making her a permanent resident in the U.S.
“Thank God I have … a green card,” she said.
Yet for all the difficultly it entailed, al Hasan’s asylum experience still pales in comparison to the meticulous immigration system set up for most refugees seeking entry into the U.S. That process usually takes 18–24 months, and mandates that applicants endure a 21-step screening procedure that includes security checks, interviews, background investigations, and the collection of biometric data. In fact, it is arguably the most difficult way to enter the United States legally.
Welcomed by Americans, but not American politicians
An ornate green Quran hung above al Hasan as she spoke, resting on a mantle beneath a large plaque with an Arabic inscription. Al Hasan, like most Syrians, is Muslim, but her husband — who is back in Damascus and who she says is no longer in the picture — is Christian, both maintaining their respective faiths.
The Muslim faith of al Hasan and millions of other refugees has become a flashpoint in the United States, where anti-Islam sentiment is on the rise. Al Hasan and her family live in Dearborn, Michigan, one of the highest concentrations of Muslim Americans in the country. The town is often a target for anti-Islam activists, many of whom claim that the community is a hotbed for extremists or is home to “no-go zones” where religious police enforce harsh interpretations of sharia law — none of which is true. Some have even threatened to attack the town to “send a signal to ISIS,” even though three Dearborn residents were themselves killed in the recent ISIS-affiliated bombing in Beirut, Lebanon.
“Maybe they don’t know that Syrians aren’t like that. They aren’t terrorists. They’re educated and civilized.”
In addition, the state’s governor, Rick Snyder (R), is one of many asking the federal government to keep Syrian refugees from settling in the U.S. Although touting himself as “the most pro-immigration governor in the country,” Snyder, like other governors, implicitly linked ISIS with the Syrian refugee crisis on Friday, telling NPR that he wants the Obama administration to “hit the pause button” on accepting Syrian refugees because of the recent ISIS-affiliated terrorist attacks in Beirut, Paris, and Egypt. (When asked to name a specific problem with the current refugee vetting process, Snyder couldn’t name one.)
Other politicians are more explicit about connecting Islamophobia to those fleeing Syria. Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Marco Rubio both agreed that the U.S. should turn away Syrian refugees for now, and both bandied about the possibility of closing mosques in the wake of the Paris attacks. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives passed a bill on Thursday that could severely limit the acceptance of people fleeing from Syria and Iraq.
Asked what she thought of such actions, al Hasan argued American politicians were simply uninformed.
“My opinion is maybe they don’t know that Syrians aren’t like that,” she said. “They aren’t terrorists. They’re educated and civilized.”
Still, she expressed frustration with those who ignore the fact that the primary victims of groups such as ISIS are Syrians themselves.
“We are affected even more than the West and America,” she said. “Concerning Syria and what’s happened with the terrorists in Syria, the Syrians are more harmed than anyone else.”
She also dismissed claims that ISIS is somehow representative of Islam.
“I’m Muslim, [and] Islam is not like that,” she said. “We’re not killers, we’re friendly and our religion doesn’t say this. We — Muslims — are the most affected by this.”
“Go back to Syria? No…not even if the war ends. It took my whole life.”
“Daesh, they corrupt our religion,” she added, using the derogatory name for the group.
Al Hasan made a distinction between American politicians and everyday Americans, however. Asked how she was received after coming to the United States, she told the story of a mother who approached her and asked her to explain to her son why she wears a headscarf.
“The person was very friendly,” she said, smiling. “We laughed and I said ‘My religion is Islam.’ She asked, ‘Do you all wear it?’ And I said ‘No, not all — there are many Muslims here, but they are friendly.’”
Al Hasan explained that her new dream is to stay in the United States and become a full-fledged citizen, to build a new life for her family here in America. When asked if she would ever wish to return to Syria, she was unequivocal.
“Go back to Syria? No,” she said firmly, her eyes narrowing with a mixture of anger and sadness. She glanced again at her daughter. “No, not even if the war ends. It took my whole life, my parents…No, I don’t think I’ll go back.”
Justin Salhani contributed reporting for this article. He also largely conducted and translated the Arabic interview that made this story possible.