Ekbal Al Zoubi and his family escaped death. In a war that has killed at least 400,000 people, Al Zoubi and his family are a few of the 15,479 Syrian refugees to make it into the United States in 2016.
“We escaped the war in Syria,” said Al Zoubi, “The government there is killing innocent people for demanding their rights.”
Al Zoubi said that while his family were fleeing from the government and living in the refugee camps, their focus remained on trying to move into the United States.
“I heard a lot about the United States before I came here,” said Al Zoubi. “We were told it was a land of freedom and opportunity. We were told America was a country of law, and that the government doesn’t care what your political or your religious beliefs are.”
But for Al Zoubi, and many others at the Community Forum hosted by the Ethiopian Community Development Council, Inc. on Feb 2, there is a rising fear that the America they escaped to may not be the one that was promised. On Jan. 30, President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning persons from seven “terror-prone” countries, including Syria, from entering the United States. The order’s legality has been challenged in courts and its implementation remains in question. While Al Zoubi’s immediate family is safe, others in the room still have family members seeking asylum in the United States. Many also expressed concerns that the ban could affect the way Syrian refugees are viewed by the public or could lead to more actions taken against refugees.
“We came here seeking safety, but now we are very uncertain,” said Al Zoubi. “Recently, we’ve seen the United States working against people demanding their rights and freedom.”
At the forum, refugees from Syria shared their stories with refugees from other crises.
“These families want a normal life,” said Fazela Mahmoodi, a refugee from Afghanistan. “They never feel safe. After every attack, you call everyone you know to see if they’re safe.”
Mahmoodi said that the vetting process for her immigration was extensive.
“It took me two years from the time I applied to when I got a visa. There are 15 steps, from a medical screening to interviews, and every refugee goes through this process. Many wait much longer.”
Yen Le, representing Boat People SOS, was a refugee to Arlington County from the Vietnam War. Le said the executive order has had a broader impact on refugees than just those in the outlined Muslim countries. Le said a man the organization works with was jailed in Vietnam for protesting. He left for Thailand and has been trying to flee to the United States, but has been in limbo since the executive order limited the number of refugees received by the United States.
Representatives from Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner and U.S. Rep. Donald Beyer attended the event, saying that the local members of Congress are opposed to the executive order and have been working to help refugees stuck at Dulles International Airport. Noah Simon from Beyer’s office said citizens should get in contact with their local representatives if their family members are being detained.
For many, the persecution and violence in Syria didn’t start with the civil war. Chirin Ahmad and Frid Mosa are Kurdish. Mosa said his family wasn’t even given Syrian citizenship, and that the Syrian government was killing Kurds before the revolution.
“During the revolution, Syrians were killed without mercy,” said Mosa. “Millions fled because of the war. I am one, and I thank God for that. The way people in the U.S. have dealt with us, they consider us human.”
Despite issues with the government policy, many refugees emphasized that their experiences with the American people have been overwhelmingly positive. Since arriving, Al Zoubi says most of the Americans he’s met have been very nice and welcoming.
“They try to help us, even though our English is not the best,” said Al Zoubi. “It gives me a positive feeling, that people here will accept others. It gives me hope.”
Al Zoubi and the other refugees spoke through Ahmed Altamimi, himself a refugee from Iraq who grew up in Yemen. Altamimi is from a Baha’i background, a religious minority persecuted in Iraq and Yemen. While in Yemen, Altamimi said the government detained four other Baha’i and others were told to leave, so his family were working desperately against the clock to flee the country.
“I remember receiving the call to come to the United States,” said Altamimi. “You think about the dreams you’ll have in the United States.”
Altamimi will become a citizen in September. He said he was not expecting Trump to win the election. He said he believed up until it happened that Americans would go against his rhetoric. Many speakers said they were discouraged and shocked by the executive order, but Imam Johari Abdul-Malik from the Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church finished the meeting with a message of hope.
“If you and I work together and struggle together, we will all be free,” said Abdul-Malik. “Millions wish they could come to America, but God blessed you to be the ones here.”
Abdul Malik said that like many, he was surprised at Trump’s election, but said that in the aftermath he’s been inspired by the outpouring of support for the Muslim community.
“People thought justice and freedom would roll down on the wings of inevitability,” said Abdul-Malik, “but justice is never inevitable. We have to work for it. [Trump] is a great organizer. He brought us together and we will never be divided. He has created the greatest opportunity for us to organize together.”