Jamil was admitted to the U.S. two and a half years after he fled violence in his native Syria. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: Bob Andres
Photo: Bob Andres

Refugees trace the long, difficult road from Syria to Atlanta

Jamil stepped off a plane in Atlanta on Nov. 13, eager to begin a new life after fleeing Syria’s civil war. 

Coming to the United States was the dream that sustained him through more than three years as a refugee. But the timing of his arrival could not have been worse: on the same day Jamil flew into Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Islamic State terrorists launched coordinated assaults in Paris that killed 130.

The backlash was immediate. Days after Jamil touched down in Atlanta, more than two dozen U.S. governors, including Georgia’s, were vowing to halt the resettlement of Syrians in their communities. 

Jamil and other Syrian refugees in Georgia say that reaction is wrongheaded. The vetting process for refugees, they say, is so lengthy and exhaustive that true bad actors can find much easier ways to infiltrate the U.S.

Nevertheless, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and others say they are acting out of prudence. And polls taken since the Paris attacks suggest the majority of Americans have deep reservations about admitting more Syrians, doubting the U.S. government’s ability to adequately screen them.

Jamil spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through an Arabic interpreter at the Atlanta office of the International Rescue Committee, which is helping him resettle in Decatur. He asked that his full name not be published to protect relatives in Syria.

Bearded and youthful at 30, Jamil has expressive eyes and an easy smile, though he is often pensive. After living in violence, and then more years living in limbo, he is embracing his new home.

“Freedom,” he said in describing the U.S. “Anything that you dream about, you can do it.”

‘There is no such word as safe’

Jamil was studying law when the fighting erupted between jihadist groups and the Syrian military in 2011. Buildings were flattened in his hometown of Al-Hasakah, in northeast Syria. Grocery prices soared; power outages lasting for hours became the norm.

A Christian, Jamil worried that compulsory service in the Syrian military would mean certain death at the hands of extremist fighters from the Islamic State. A cousin and some acquaintances who served in Syria’s military have been killed or kidnapped by the the militant group known as ISIS, he said. And there was another simple concern as well: he didn’t want to take up arms against fellow Syrians.

Fearing for his life, Jamil cut his studies short by a year and fled to Istanbul in 2012 with the help of a smuggler.

“There is no such word as safe in Al-Hasakah,” he said.

Tens of thousands more refugees would flee Syria in the years that followed, streaming across Europe and creating one of the largest diasporas in modern times.

In Turkey, the onetime law student found himself sharing a two-story apartment in an impoverished neighborhood with about 20 other Syrian refugees. He worked in a factory and washed dishes at a restaurant. When he wasn’t working, he watched television to learn Turkish. He had no legal status in Turkey and lived in constant fear of being deported.

Jamil could not even apply for refugee status until he had lived in Turkey for a year. When the resettlement authorities asked where he wanted to go, he enthusiastically chose the United States. He said he has wanted to come here since he was a young boy watching American films starring Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson and John Travolta.

Jamil in his Decatur apartment. The Syrian former law student arrived in the U.S. on the same day as the terrorist attacks in Paris. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: Bob Andres

‘We came here to build our lives’

To be granted refugee status in the U.S. is an arduous path, especially for a single man. The elderly, women, children, torture victims and people with family in the U.S. typically get priority. But even they must make it through an 18- to 24-month screening process that begins long before they board a plane to the United States.

Single men between 16 and 50 are put through an additional layer of screening through the U.S. State Department and international law enforcement databases, said Alejandro Mayorkas, deputy secretary of homeland security. Only about 2 percent of Syrian refugees arriving on U.S. soil are — like Jamil — of “combat age,” according to State Department officials.

Jamil opened up his life for inspection for 2-1/2 years. He was fingerprinted. He answered questions. Waited. Answered more questions. He recalls a bald American in a nondescript office building in Turkey, a professional and friendly man who fired question after question through an Arabic interpreter. What was he studying in Syria? Who helped him get to Turkey? Did he belong to any militia groups in Syria? Did he ever carry a weapon?

Jamal, 36, a refugee from Aleppo in northwestern Syria now living in Clarkston, described a similar vetting process, though he experienced it with his wife and five children. Jamal, who like Jamil asked that his last name not be published, fled Syria with his family in September 2011. The war had caused food and water shortages, closed schools and destroyed the mattress factory where Jamal worked. The family was smuggled out to Lebanon and then traveled to Egypt, where they applied for refugee status in April 2013. They didn’t arrive in Atlanta until more than two years later, in August of this year.

Fingerprinted and photographed, the family submitted to a half-dozen interviews in Cairo, each lasting three to four hours, Jamal said. The authorities asked their endless questions and would then check what the family said against other sources in the Syrian and U.S. governments. Then they would return with more questions.

“It’s very accurate and very intense,” Jamal said as his wife and five young children sat across from him in their den, listening intently. “A lot of people were rejected.”

Jamal now works in a chicken processing plant. Asked about calls in this country to halt resettlement of Syrian refugees, he said, “We escaped death. We didn’t come here to do any harm to anyone. We came here to build our lives and take care of our kids.”

‘Make sure their story doesn’t change’

What Jamal and Jamil described is in line with a process that ramped up dramatically after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In recent years, refugees who lack legitimate identification — or who lack documents entirely — may never reach the U.S. 

Refugees must submit to in-person interviews with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services before they can enter this country. And once they arrive here, federal law enforcement screens them again.

“We don’t take for granted they are who they say they are,” said Polly Price, associate dean at Emory University Law School, who teaches immigration law and has lectured on refugee issues at The Hague. “We get into the weeds. ‘Tell me about your village. Where did you live? What do you do for a living?’ Then [resettlement agents] will repeat it several days later to make sure their story doesn’t change.” 

Since 2011 when the civil war began in Syria, the U.S. has welcomed more than 2,200 Syrian refugees, 66 of them in Georgia (specifically, Atlanta and Stone Mountain). Under pressure to do more, President Barack Obama has pledged that the U.S. will take in 10,000 Syrians over the next year.

But after the assault on Paris, Congress 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.

“We think that’s the appropriate thing to do until the federal government and Congress can weigh in on an appropriate way to make sure that we’re not subjecting our homeland to the kind of problems that Paris saw,” Deal said.

The issue is now at play in the presidential race. The three main Democratic candidates say admitting more Syrian refugees is in line with American values. Leading GOP candidates say the issue is about minimizing potential threats to Americans’ safety. GOP candidate Ben Carson has called for stricter screening, saying: “If there is a rabid dog running around your neighborhood, you’re probably not going to assume something good about that dog. And you’re probably going to put your children out of the way.” Donald Trump said he wants a database of Syrian refugees resettling in the U.S. and “surveillance of certain mosques.”

‘You can get all kinds of visas’

But there are easier ways for terrorists to enter the country than through the refugee process, said several people who study immigration and refugee resettlement.

“You can get all kinds of visas: tourist, student, employee, but refugee visas have historically been the most difficult to get,” said Stephanie Nawyn, an associate professor of sociology at Michigan State University. “If you want to send a terrorist to the U.S., the absolute worst way is to send them as a refugee. That’s the one status that involves so much security it’s nearly impossible to come in fraudulently.”

For Jamil, the former law student, the United States provides a fresh start. He wants to become a U.S. citizen, finish law school and become an immigration attorney. 

On a recent weekday, Jamil was settling into his new home in Decatur, a modest two-bedroom apartment he shares with a quiet Iraqi refugee from Baghdad. An open cardboard box sat on the floor in their den beside a few upholstered chairs and a single lamp. Sunlight spilled through the open back door into Jamil’s tidy kitchen. He peered outside at some squealing children playing soccer in a grassy area behind his building.

He rejects talk of stopping the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the U.S.

“It’s not fair to judge a lot of people because of two or three bad guys,” Jamil said.

He said he regrets the deaths in Paris but added: “There are a lot of people losing their lives in Syria.”

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Staff writers Shelia Poole and Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.