The scapegoating of Syrian refugees this past week has been a sorry spectacle. One local Syrian talks about what it’s like to be suddenly considered public enemy number one — when in reality he’s just an engineer in Lynnwood.
Hussein Ali is an engineer at Crane Aerospace in Lynnwood. His first reactions to the Paris terrorist attacks were not unusual: He was horrified, then upset and sad.
But last weekend as he watched the reaction build on television, he felt something different: He felt accused.
“It was shocking to me how the blame so suddenly shifted to us,” Ali says.
Ali, 26, is from Syria. His family — his dad, mom, sister and two brothers — are refugees from the civil war there. Most of them fled their neighborhood in Damascus in 2013 when it came under rebel attack. One of Ali’s boyhood friends was captured by ISIS and later executed.
Now, here in his adopted country, some are tying the Paris attacks so closely and inexplicably to Syrian refugees that governors in more than half the states have said Syrians are no longer welcome there.
Most of the Republican presidential candidates are calling on Congress to bar all Syrian refugees from the U.S. Some, such as Ted Cruz, say we should welcome the Christians and only exclude the Muslim ones.
“We’ve got to wake up and smell the falafel,” GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said when calling for Syrian refugees to be turned away.
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Republican candidate Chris Christie sought to outdo them all: “I don’t think orphans under five should be admitted into the United States at this point,” he said.
Ali, who spoke with me on Tuesday, said the amount of hostility, from politicians and in some social media, caught him and other Syrians who live around Seattle off-guard.
“It’s like you’re being made responsible for the actions of this fringe, criminal group,” he said. “You have presidential candidates saying ‘we don’t want you in this country because you’re too dangerous.’ ”
Bob Johnson has been resettling refugees in Seattle for 40 years. Only twice has he seen the xenophobia as bad as it suddenly is right now.
“After 9/11 of course, the whole nation pretty much stopped taking refugees for a time,” says the director of the Seattle office of the International Rescue Committee. “In 1975 a bunch of the states refused to take in any of the Vietnamese fleeing that war.
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“This reminds me a lot of the climate after Vietnam. Because the people they’re scapegoating are actually the victims. Many of the Syrian refugees are fleeing ISIS. Now they’re being blamed for what they’re fleeing.”
Some of the reaction has been as unhinged as it is misdirected.
Locally, here’s state Rep. Jay Rodne, R-Snoqualmie, reflecting on the issue on his Facebook page: “Obama wants to import 1.5 million Muslims into the U.S. This is absolute madness! Islam is incompatible with western civilization! How many people need to die? In the interim, Americans, arm yourselves!!!!!”
Way to keep your head, Rep. Rodne. But no, it’s fringe, violent fundamentalists who are incompatible with civilization. The Syrian Muslim I’m featuring in this column is not only compatible, he works at Crane Aerospace in Lynnwood.
I asked Johnson, who has helped settle 17 Syrian refugees here in the past year, about the legitimate concern that an ISIS terrorist might pose as a refugee to get into the U.S. He said it makes no sense as a way to enter the U.S.
“It takes a minimum of two years living in a refugee camp, and then you’re vetted, interviewed and fingerprinted by the FBI, Homeland Security and the State Department,” he said. “It’s an incredibly arduous process to get here. They’re not just showing up on the beach here as they are over in Europe.”
Johnson said refugees are given the most thorough background checks of any immigrants coming into the country.
Gov. Jay Inslee cited all of this when he said Washington should continue to accept refugees, but the right ridiculed his views as soft and irresponsible anyway. So far we’re one of only 13 states to say Syrians remain welcome (though that’s mostly symbolic, as the states have little control over refugee resettlement anyway.)
Now Congress may try to cut off funding for the refugee program entirely.
Ali says he feels tremendously blessed to be here anyway.
“I hold out hope that it’s just politicians fueling this sort of fear,” he said. “Maybe the people aren’t going along with it.”
Maybe. The reason Ali spoke to me, he said, was to try to counter the political demagoguery with the voice of a real Syrian living here in Seattle.
You’re a brave man for speaking up, Ali. A lot braver than those who are scapegoating your people who are still fleeing for their lives.