Days of speculation and anxiety followed the Paris attacks. Then, last week, the Paris prosecutor’s office confirmed that two of the suicide bombers did pass through Greece last month as part of the wave of refugees fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.
In the U.S., the emotional debate about whether or not to shut Syrian refugees out altogether gained new traction in presidential politics.
GOP candidate Sen. Ted Cruz called President Obama and Hillary Clinton’s proposal to “bring to this country tens of thousands of Syrian Muslim refugees … nothing short of lunacy,” following the Paris attacks.
And recent polls show that a majority of Americans don’t want Syrian refugees resettled in the U.S. at all.
Meanwhile, dozens of governors around the country have said they want to halt, or at least pause, the U.S. refugee resettlement program in Syria and Iraq — including Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. Michigan also has the country’s largest Muslim community.
Weekend Edition‘s Rachel Martin spoke with two Syrian refugees living in Michigan.
The week on For the Record: Syrian refugees — the risks and the responsibilities.
Basha, who came to the U.S. more than 20 years ago, is now president of the Syrian American Rescue Network, a nonprofit organization that gives support to Syrian refugees.
When she was growing up in Syria, the country’s current president Bashar al-Assad’s father was in power. In 1982, he crushed an Islamic uprising in her hometown in what would come to be known as the Hama massacre.
Her whole family couldn’t afford to leave the country but they scraped enough money together to buy a ticket for her to get out. She left Syria at the age of 17, arriving in Canada on a student visa, and immigrated to the U.S. a couple years later.
“I was deprived from my childhood, my family and my country,” she says.
Ever since the Sept. 11 attacks, Basha has had to endure the occasional anti-Muslim barb from a complete stranger.
She recalls a recent example that occurred at her local pharmacy.
“The lady behind me was yelling, you know, was shouting at me ‘Go back! We don’t want you here. We don’t want terrorists here,’ ” she says.
When the news broke about the attacks in Paris, her daughter, a University of Michigan student, called her, fearing her safety.
“She said, ‘Mom, can you be careful please? Can you try to go back home?’ ” Basha says. “I said ‘God, please don’t let it be another terror attack or another Muslim.’ And then it crossed my mind for a second that it might actually be blamed on a Syrian refugee.”
Concerns about ISIS coming to the U.S. are not exclusive to non-Muslims, says Basha. She’s also an American, and she, too, is afraid.
But she says shutting out refugees is a mistake.
“We do have vested interest in the safety of America from terror,” she says. “You know having family here, my kids, the safety of me and my kids. We’re not asking them to cut down on the vetting process. I don’t care how long it takes — two years, three years. We’re just asking them to not close doors completely.”
Alhayak, who’s only been in the U.S. for a few months, is learning English. He spoke to NPR through a translator.
“First of all, I consider myself fortunate that I made it to the United States,” he says. “I consider it the number one country for democracy and freedom for humanity, worldwide.”
He fled Syria with his wife in 2012, and crossed over the border to Jordan. When he applied for asylum in the U.S., he was told he’d have a good chance because he had been tortured and imprisoned by the Assad regime.
He underwent months of interviews and background checks and says he was interviewed separately from his wife to make sure their stories added up.
“There are six different interviews with the Homeland Security committee where they asked us the same questions just to check for consistency in the story,” he says. “So, it would be impossible for me to make up a story or lie about it because they would vet us out and make sure everything was right.”
He says he was grilled on whether or not he had an affiliation with the Baath regime in Syria or any other political groups. Then more than two years after he started the process, he got a phone call telling him that he and his wife would be resettled in the United States.
“Before I got the phone call, I was the kind of person who had given up on life. But then this phone call was like a breath of fresh air that blew life back into me,” he says.
That’s not to say he doesn’t register the concern people have that those coming into the country could be a threat by posing as refugees.
“I totally understand their fear,” he says. “I want to assure them we’re not like that. We went through a lot. We went through terror ourselves. And there’s no way in the world we’d do such a horrible act.”
Alhayak is setting up a new life in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., outside Detroit. He works at a manufacturing plant making light fixtures. He and his wife have made friends in their neighborhood and they feel welcome. All he wants now is to get his parents and brother out of Syria. He says of course he’d like them to come to the U.S., but what he really wants is for them to be able to go anywhere that’s safe.