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.

Jared Boggess

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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