Straight Outta Syria

Orange County is home to growing numbers of refugees from that country's growing civil war

There are no exact numbers on how many Syrians have arrived in California, which has the largest Middle Eastern population in the U.S. outside of the Detroit area, but local activists say there is a noticeable increase in their numbers in Orange County, home to a well-established and burgeoning Arab community. Since February, Munmeeth Soni, an immigration attorney with the Santa Ana-based Public Law Center (a nonprofit, pro bono law firm), has conducted asylum screenings once a month at the Access California Services office in Anaheim. She searches for pro bono attorneys or takes on select cases herself.

To gain asylum, an individual must demonstrate that he or she is unwilling or unable to return to his or her country of origin because of persecution or a well-founded fear of suffering persecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group. Soni says she often meets with Egyptians, Iraqis and Palestinians, but lately, the majority of her clients has been Syrian. And most of them have strong cases for asylum.

Asylum status, however, is a difficult concept to grapple with, especially for those individuals who came without their family, a scenario Soni often comes across. Foreign nationals who receive asylum status are eligible to become U.S. citizens if they obtain their green card, which takes a year. But until they receive citizenship, a process that generally lasts four years, they are strongly advised to not return to their country of origin, or they risk losing their status. The thought of not being able to see one's family for a total of five years is daunting, at best.

As mounting violence and increasing fatalities severely diminish the prospects of returning home, however, more Syrian nationals apply for the halo of safety and security that is asylum status, says an immigration-services coordinator* for Access California. The deadline to apply for temporary, protected status, under which U.S. Customs and Immigration Services allowed any Syrian who arrived before March 29 the ability to work and travel for 18 months, expired on Sept. 25.

It's no surprise then that the number of Syrians seeking asylum on a national level has nearly doubled, from 124 applications in the 2011 fiscal year to 236 in the 2012 fiscal year since March, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Los Angeles.

Even Syrians who hold a dual citizenship find it difficult to face the prospect of permanent resettlement in the U.S. Hamdi Bassemy fled to Jordan after he found out he was wanted for questioning by the Syrian Army's intelligence unit. The day after he arrived, Bassemy's cousin told him that 74 soldiers had raided his business. "I didn't want to come here, but I had no choice," says Bassemy, who now lives in Anaheim.

Bassemy is from the city where the uprising started, Daraa in the south of Syria. On March 16, 2011, civilians took to the streets of Al-Balad, a poor historic neighborhood in Daraa, to protest the torture of students who had written anti-government graffiti on their school walls. The army violently responded to the protests, killing scores of people and cutting off the district from the outside world. After discovering the news, on March 18, 2011, Bassemy and a few other friends started to march from their neighborhood toward nearby Al-Balad to break the blockade. They chanted, "Silmia, silmia"—Arabic for "peaceful, peaceful"—to show the army they were unarmed and unready to fight.

"We started out as 100 people," Bassemy says. "And by the time we got to Daraa, we were thousands. And this is where the first massacre happened."

When they arrived at the gates of Al-Balad, the army unleashed heavy rounds of sniper attacks. Bassemy's friends and neighbors fell—one shot in the head, one in the abdomen, one in the chest. Those who survived retreated back to their outlying villages. Over the next week, they continued to walk to Al-Balad in order to break the siege. The fire of machine guns greeted them each time.

As he tells his story at a local coffee shop, Bassemy nervously switches from fluent English to Arabic. He repeatedly glances at two strangers sitting nearby, then takes out a cigarette and lights it. I offer to switch our seats from the patio to the inside of the shop, but he doesn't answer, still watching the two men. After a few minutes, the pair begins speaking in Spanish. Bassemy exhales a sigh of relief. "They're Mexicans," he says.

Many Syrian community members, including Bassemy, believe Bashar Al-Assad has spies in this county. Throughout our conversation, Bassemy continues to check out everyone who comes near enough to hear him speak—even watching the cars driving past the shop.

Bassemy says he initially doubted the wisdom of Daraa's fight for freedom. "When people started shouting, 'Down with the regime,' I got scared," he recalls. "We didn't have confidence that we were going to continue." But his fears burned away the moment he saw bloodshed on his first civilian march, lending itself to a feeling Bassemy never felt before in his homeland. "When you taste freedom, and you know what it feels like, you're not going to give it up."

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7 comments
ageofknowledge
ageofknowledge

We need Syria's troubles about as much as we needed Mexico's troubles which is to say we didn't and don't need them at all. These people don't build up America, they destroy it. Let's stop being codependent and make people solve their own problems.

Danubio
Danubio

"When extended relatives in Orange County discovered Soori had been arrested, one of them rushed to a local community college and registered Soori and his cousin Basel Shami as international students; shortly after, both young men received student visas to travel to the United States"

 

Damm!!!! why couldn't Mexicans think of that

 

How do we know we are not getting infiltrators into the Country, among the bona fide refugees

 

jcfranklin21
jcfranklin21

Judi

For heaven's sake man, have a heart!  The Syrian people I know are very hard workers and extremely hospitable!  I am proud that they can find refuge here

in America.  Have you forgotton the entire concept of our great country?  With a name like Guerro, where did you come from?

Guerro
Guerro

This is really not a great idea.  We never learn.  Can the first Syrian street gang be far off?

waelm
waelm

 @Guerro I'm sure just like the bloods and crips or better yet the mexican zetta or cartel.. Yep these Syrians who have been driven from there homes by force, some of their family members murdered as the world watches because there is not enough oil beneath the earth in Syria. So We shall just sit and watch them get slaughtered by the thousands but hey have you heard; they are coming to America to start street gangs.. Not, that's a mexican thing. 

ageofknowledge
ageofknowledge

You advocate extorting yet more billions from what remains of ailing U.S. taxpayers to build yet another hate-America Muslim theocracy (this time in Syria) while implanting yet another dysfunctional "community" of violent anti-Americans into the U.S. simultaneously?

 

That makes no sense. You can play the world's policeman if you want to with your own life and on your own dime but keep us out of it. But that's not what people like you agitate for. You want your fellow Americans to be financially extorted by an out-of-control government while American lives are sacrificed to build yet another Muslim theocracy to hate them and their descendants.

 

People like you are stupider than dirt. Obviously, it would be much easier, cheaper, logical, and safer for U.S. citizens and their progeny (in both the short and long run) to simply strip you of your U.S. citizenship and deport you to Syria instead!

 

There you can find your happiness learning to walk your own talk.

 
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