Running from Home

Syrian Refugee, Nour Alkhalouf, gives her opinion on Governor Deal's attempt to bar refugees from entering Georgia. Photo by Jason Luong | The Signal
Syrian Refugee, Nour Alkhalouf, gives her opinion on Governor Deal’s attempt to bar refugees from entering Georgia.
Photo by Jason Luong | The Signal

Nour Alkhalouf, a 19-year-old Syrian refugee, left her country by herself in October of 2010. When asked what life in Syria was like before the refugee crisis, she said the citizens were “always scared.”

“People were being arrested, because they’re against [the] Assad [family]. People were always scared. We had a saying in our family: Even the walls have ears,” she said. “So, we couldn’t even talk in our houses. My family was always against Assad, but we couldn’t even say it publicly…And so, people were always scared and they pretended that nothing was happening.”

Paedia Mixon, the CEO of New American Pathways, a program designed to help refugees resettle, said if Georgia accepts its proportional share, the amount of refugees in Georgia could be anywhere between “2500-2800 to 3000-3400 per year.”

What led to Syrian emigration

The source of the unrest in Syria stemmed from when the al-Assad family came into power in the 1970s, according to The Atlantic.

With the lack of farmable land, “sour” oil and the struggle of defining the Syrian identity, Hafez al-Assad, president of Syria from 1971 to 2000, fanned the flames, The Atlantic reported.

Riots began. Discontented political groups banded together to fight al-Assad. The Atlantic covered the city of Hama’s uproar; the outcome became known as the Hama Massacre.

“[Hafez al-Assad] killed 40,000 people…I know a lot of friends whose fathers were killed in front of them in the 1980s” Alkhalouf said.

The article said after Hafez al-Assad’s death, his son Bashar al-Assad inherited this splintered country in the 2000 Syrian presidential election.

Then came the Arab Spring in 2011, a surge of both violent riots and peaceful demonstrations in the Middle East resulting in the overthrowing of three authoritarian governments – Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt – and political upheavals throughout the Middle East.

Once the revolutions began back in March of 2011, Alkhalouf said she couldn’t return to Syria because “we were told immediately by the Syrian police that we would be arrested if we come back.”

When Syrians tried to remove al-Assad from power peacefully, security forces fired on them, sparking the protests, which eventually amassed into the civil war still happening today, according to the Washington Post.

Resettling away from the unrest

With all these moving parts, Syrians have been trying to escape their country. They aren’t particularly welcome in many European countries, such as the Czech Republic that numbers refugees’ arms with “felt-tip pens,” according to the Huffington Post.

However, getting to the U.S. is not an easy undertaking. The politics of al-Assad’s regime extend further than the borders of Syria. When applying for a student visa to continue her education in Dubai, Alkhalouf said the request turned into an “investigation.”

This shocked both Alkhalouf and her sister, who was travelling with her at the time.

“I applied for the student visa and I didn’t get it. So, I went to this police officer who was in charge of the visas…So, he was asking me ‘Could you tell me what your father does against Assad?’ and I was like ‘What does that have to do with [the visa]?’…He wasn’t even Syrian. He was a Meraki from the United Arab Emirates,” she said.

In April of 2015, she said she tried to go back to Dubai for her finals, but a new order restricting Syrians with resident visas from Dubai blocked her. She asked for more details about the order, but the only response she received was that she was restricted in the meantime.

After crying and begging an officer to let her finish her finals, they granted Alkhalouf two months in Dubai.

In June of last year, she went to Saudi Arabia, since Dubai was “kicking me out and Syria is impossible.”

This investigation was not a one-time event. From August 2014 until June 2015, she said these investigations occurred “whenever I went to ask about my visa.”

When she told her cousins, who live in Atlanta, about the situation, they helped her apply to Georgia State.

A Syrian refugee in Georgia, who wishes to remain anonymous, traveled through Turkey to get to the U.S. He said the process was “not pleasant.”

He and his family had to wait in Turkey for 13 months, went through six interviews and traveled 17 hours for four of them, one of which lasted four hours.

Reactions nationwide and local

Those who do make it into the U.S. still face obstacles. Asma el-Huni, a Georgia State student who helps refugees in Georgia get supplies such as food, clothes and transportation, said some are turned away by what politicians say.

“They heard the comments that [Presidential Candidate] Donald Trump has made, and they actually refused to come afterwards,” she said.

Because of remarks like Trump’s, el-Huni worries people only associate Muslims with being radicalized and violent. However, religious Muslims are peaceful.

She also said there are more Christian fundamentalists that caused attacks in America than Muslims.

The New York Times also reported that “anti-government, racist and other non jihadist extremists” are responsible for killing approximately twice as many people in the U.S. as jihadists.

Locally, before the Attorney General forced Gov. Nathan Deal to rescind his order on Jan. 4, he pushed for “all agencies of the State of Georgia halt any involvement in accepting refugees from Syria,” as stated in the order. This included not granting them federally-funded aid, such as food stamps and Medicaid.

When asked how he felt about the order, the refugee said he can understand what other people may think about Syrian refugees, but “we are here only to survive.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that this issue was already out of Deal’s hands.

First, the Supreme Court and Refugee Act of 1980 gave the federal government authority to determine nationwide immigration policies, according to ACLU. Second, the Court also ruled that a cleared noncitizen can live in any state as long as they follow any federal requirements. Lastly, the 14th Amendment includes national origin as a reason someone cannot be discriminated against.

Furthermore, Mixon said the refugees who do come here don’t tend to settle in downtown Atlanta. Instead, they’re welcomed into DeKalb County, “particularly in and around Clarkston.”

Alkhalouf said her transition from Syria to Atlanta was smooth and the people here are “very welcoming.” She also said she benefited from attending an American university in Dubai, where she could learn English, Arabic and French.

“[My cousins and I] go together to [Georgia] State, we have lunch together every day…Going to another country, especially in a totally different part of the world, it should be hard, but they made it really easy,” she said.

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  1. Running from home: Georgia State student fled Syria as refugee – Tales from the Margins

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