New Syrian refugee family arrives in Georgia despite state’s objections

Another Syrian refugee family has arrived in the Atlanta area, becoming the first to relocate to Georgia from their war-torn nation since Gov. Nathan Deal joined more than two dozen of his counterparts in vowing to halt their resettlement.

Mohammad, Ebtesam and their four-year-old son's arrival in Georgia highlights how, despite the political rhetoric, states are powerless to stop that resettlement process, which is overseen by the federal government. And Deal — who has cited security concerns in the wake of last month's Paris attacks — indicated he wasn't even aware the family had arrived in Georgia.

Their arrival also raises the possibility of a legal showdown. The Deal administration has ordered state employees not to process applications for benefits — including food stamps — for new Syrian refugees coming to Georgia. That has triggered a sharp warning from the Obama administration, which told Georgia it must rescind its order to comply with federal law.

Mohammad and Ebtesam, who asked that their full names not be published to protect relatives still living in Syria, applied to the state Thursday for food stamps and Medicaid. As of late Thursday afternoon, there was no word whether the state would process their applications.

Since 2011 when the civil war began in Syria, the U.S. has welcomed more than 2,300 Syrian refugees. Of those, 69 have resettled in Georgia, specifically in Atlanta and Stone Mountain. Under pressure to do more as millions of Syrians are being displaced by the fighting, President Barack Obama is pledging the U.S. will take in 10,000 over the next year.

Mohammad and Ebtesam appeared eager to share their story with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday. At times, they excitedly talked over one another as they described a hellish experience living south of Damascus amid the civil war still raging across their native country. Ebtesam wiped away tears as she confirmed two of their relatives had been killed in the fighting, including her sister. She was shot dead by a sniper as she took a walk with her infant daughter. Now in its fourth year, the war has turned parts of their town of Daraa into rubble, destroyed the family’s home and made it too dangerous for Mohammad to support his family any longer as a taxi driver.

“Everything is gone in the city,” Mohammad said through an Arabic interpreter during an interview at the Stone Mountain office of World Relief Atlanta, which is helping the family resettle in Georgia. “The city was destroyed.”

After the assault on Paris killed 130 people, the Republican-controlled House voted for legislation that would halt the entry of refugees from Syria until additional screenings are in place. More than half of the nation’s governors have taken similar positions. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Paris assaults and their stronghold is in Syria. One of the Paris suicide bombers posed as a Syrian migrant and passed through Greece and the Balkans, though French officials have said his Syrian passport was a fake. Deal issued an executive order on Nov. 16, instructing state agencies to halt any involvement in resettling new Syrian refugees.

“We have taken every effort we can at the state level to try to make sure they do not pose a danger to the citizens of our state,” the Republican governor told reporters Wednesday. “When you have a majority of the American public having grave concerns about a specific group of refugees, the federal government owes it to the people of the country and the people of Georgia to give us more assurances than they have given us to this point.”

Deal also seemed unaware that more Syrian refugees had arrived in Georgia this week.

“What’s new? We didn’t know that 59 were here,” he said, adding about the federal government: “When they don’t tell you who they are sending, they don’t tell you where they are sending them, and they don’t tell you where they are, it’s more difficult for the state to be prepared. They expect the states to simply close their eyes and pretend there’s no problem. I’m not satisfied with that.”

Deal also indicated Georgia is ready to battle the Obama administration in court over the state’s refusal to process food stamp applications for new Syrian refugees. When asked Wednesday about the likelihood of a lawsuit over his refugee policies, Deal said curtly: “We will defend them.”

Legal battles are already underway in other states. Last month, a nonprofit refugee resettlement organization filed suit to block similar policies in Indiana. Texas went on the offensive Wednesday, suing the federal government and the International Rescue Committee, alleging they did not consult the Lone Star State about resettling Syrian refugees there.

Mohammad and Ebtesam said they fled Syria with their son to Jordan in 2012. They weren’t able to legally work in Jordan, so the family survived on loans from relatives living in the United Arab Emirates. Mohammad and Ebtesam applied for refugee status in 2013 and then submitted to four interviews lasting up to two hours each. Resettlement officials asked what they had experienced in Syria, if their relatives had been harmed and whether Mohammad had served in his country’s military. They were fingerprinted and photographed.

Mohammad rejected the idea that someone seeking to harm the U.S. could slip through such a screening process.

“It’s impossible someone would apply,” he said, “because [the resettlement officials] are very smart and they could recognize if someone has bad intentions.”

The couple also called the terrorists who attacked Paris “criminals” and said their victims were innocent.

“Nobody deserved that,” Mohammad said.

Ebtesam emphatically added: “Whatever happened in Paris is not acceptable.”

They said they felt safe in Georgia and aren’t afraid of a backlash against Syrian refugees here following the massacre in France. Syrian refugees, they said, are only seeking better lives in the U.S.

“They are seeking peace,” they said in unison. “They are seeking prosperity.”