These are the people we don't want in our country?
Before Syria became mired in conflict, I studied for the year at a French Foreign Ministry Arabic course in Damascus. I lived in an Ottoman-era house in the Old City. Too regularly for my lungs I enjoyed double apple hookahs in the courtyard cafes by the Thomas Gate. Damascus at the time served as a popular place for Arabic study for its political stability--police states can be that way--and number of quality academic institutions. During a lesson one day in the new city, the afternoon call to prayer droning on in the background, my Arabic teacher insisted to me on Syria's instability: "You don't know what it is like to live in an unstable country, where you could lose your job and be out on the street," he continued, "Or have a masters in engineering and the only job you can get is as a waiter because you don't know the right people."
For many Syrians and Iraqis seeking refuge, a desire for stability informs their desire to live in the United States. Most share in common with their detractors a belief in the American Dream. Americans should realize these individuals provide a net benefit to our society and that we are doing better with our integration policies than most European countries.
The Paris terror attacks seemed to be the last straw for many Americans who have harbored anxieties, however mistaken, about Islam since 9-11. Many Republic politicians have captured this xenophobic moment, with the zenith being Donald Trump's call for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States." And then there are governors of three states who have made big shows of "banning" Syrian refugees from their states, even though their proclamations have little political weight. Their populism is myopic, and fails to grasp America's essence as an immigrant society, and that integration of those from diverse faiths can serve as one of our most powerful tools against extremism.
For many of the thousands of Afghans and Iraqis who worked for U.S. forces, the opportunity of a visa to the United States outweighed threats against their lives and their families. After facing security and bureaucratic hurdles to obtain visas. they now must face American public opinion.
Ala'a Salih, a thirty year old Baghdad resident who worked for U.S. forces for five years as a translator, recently immigrated to the United States. "I am grateful for the [Special Immigrant Visa] program and the U.S. Government," he states. "Like many other translators, I was in need for such a chance to start a new life with our families, especially since we are living in very bad and dangerous country." He had his fingerprints taken several times and even did a retina scan. He and his family now live in the South, now home to more than 1/3 of America's mosques. Ala'a now works as a security manager for the State Department. He has used the skills and conversation English he gained working with the Army to protect American government employees abroad.
Nizar Latif, a former translator for U.S. forces in Iraq, writes in Foreign Policy about the difficulties he faced in getting out of war torn Iraq and surviving with limited assistance in Texas. Background checks and bureaucratic delays meant it took three years to make it to the United States from the time he applied as a refugee to touching down in Texas.
Other Iraqis who worked for U.S. military forces have sued over delays in obtaining Special Immigrant Visas for working for the U.S military in Iraq. Thousands have made it, but many are remain stuck in bureaucratic limbo as the situation worsens in their countries.
Joe (name changed) worked as a translator for U.S. forces. As a former helicopter pilot in Saddam Hussein's Army, he has had to move neighborhoods and conceal his identity and past and current occupations to protect his family. He has also waited for three years for a visa to travel to the United States and his visa has not yet been approved. "I feel that America has left me stranded."
Like Ala'a, Joe and Nizar, most refugees are ready and well-qualified to work. Of the Syrians who have fled to Europe in recent years, more than 20% have completed higher education. According to The Economist magazine American Muslims account for less than 1% of the nation's population, yet make up 10% of its doctors. And let's not forget the Arab Christians, Jews, and those from other confessions in the region who have made great contributions to American society.
What about the outlier individuals who may threaten Americans? Statistics show that American Muslims are generally more educated and better integrated into the mainstream than their European counterparts. According to CNN analyst Peter Bergen, over 5,000 Europeans have joined ISIS, compared to a much fewer 250 Americans.
Home sweet home
In any case, many refugees would ideally want to be home. Maureen White writes in a New York Times oped that the vast majority of the estimated 4 million Syrian refugees want to return home once the war ends. If Western nations did more to support countries in the region facing migrant inflows--namely Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan--they would not face such a demand at home. And then there are those who do not want to leave in the first place. According to Elias (name changed), a 35 year old Syrian Christian who left his home near Lattakia for Dubai in 2012 to work at the U.S. consulate, his mother will not leave their village, no matter how bad it gets. "When you get older you want to stay in your hometown, as it is what you know."
For those who do not have the option of returning, opening up our doors to them via expanded refugee resettlement may be one of the most powerful tools in our toolkit for preventing future attacks against the homeland. As an immigrant society, America is founded on the principles of accepting the tired and poor from diverse lands. If the system is not broken, why fix it?