Kassem Eid, a Syrian opposition activist, has Washington’s ear.
Since he came to the United States on a tourist visa in March 2014, he’s met with administration and State Department officials. He’s been in touch with Democratic and Republican members of Congress. And he’s appeared before the United Nations Security Council with U.N. ambassador Samantha Power.
He’s been on “60 Minutes” twice, once for a segment about narrowly surviving a sarin gas attack on his hometown of Moadhamiyeh. He’s been profiled in the New York Times, and he’s written op-eds in the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.
None of that exposure got him what he wanted: for the U.S. to take action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, either by arming the rebel opposition or instituting a no-fly zone. Even humanitarian airdrops of food and medicine would have helped, he said.
Instead, Eid, who also goes by his nom de guerre, Qusai Zakarya, watched the regime continue to slaughter civilians, some of whom have tried to come to the United States as refugees.
Over the past week, as American politicians have come out against more Syrian refugees entering the United States, Eid’s disappointment in the U.S. has grown.
“These officials, whether they are congressman or candidates running for president, if they have these disgusting theories and disgusting ideas about the Syrian refugees, they shouldn’t be representing the U.S. government, they shouldn’t be representing the United States people, they shouldn’t be representing the values of this country,” Eid told CQ Roll Call at a coffee shop in Washington, DC, last week.
The American backlash against Syrian refugees began soon after the Nov. 13 Paris attacks when it was thought that one of the terrorists had come to France with a Syrian passport.
Last Monday, Nov. 16, the national frontrunner in the GOP presidential race, Donald Trump, said he would “strongly consider” shutting down mosques.
On Wednesday, the Democratic mayor of Roanoke, Va., pointed to the American internment of Japanese during the second World War as justification for refusing resettlement to Syrians. And on Thursday, Ben Carson compared Syrian refugees to dogs.
Thursday afternoon, the GOP-controlled House, with nearly 50 Democrats on board, passed legislation adding extra security checks to Syrians and Iraqis hoping to enter the U.S. as refugees — a measure that some Democrats, even those in competitive races next year, suggested was anti-American.
“These are families reeling from mass murder, teenage girls escaping sexual slavery, toddlers sleeping in dirty, dangerous encampments,” said Arizona Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who’s challenging defense hawk John McCain, in a statement before Thursday votes. “The political discourse – and now legislation – targeting these refugees in the wake of the Paris attacks is truly beneath us.”
Senate minority leader Harry Reid has said the bill won’t pass the Senate, which is out of town for the week for the Thanksgiving recess.
But what Eid fears, he said, is that the political discourse he’s heard in the past week will energize the very terrorists that some lawmakers are afraid will slip into the country.
“They shouldn’t keep making people more disappointed. They shouldn’t keep helping ISIS and all the other radical extremist groups in recruiting,” Eid said of lawmakers who want to halt Syria refugees coming into the country.
“Because these extremist groups, they feed and grow on people’s disappointment. They use that negative energy that these kinds of statements and these stupid acts that affect people, and they use it to recruit,” Eid said, twirling the black rosary beads he kept on the table in front of him.
“Discrimination is a very powerful way to make somebody desperate, and especially an angry person who lost his family members,” he added.
Attempting to contact Syrian refugees for this story, CQ Roll Call heard over and over again from American refugee resettlement organizations that Syrian families in the U.S. are scared to talk.
“Well, I can’t blame them,” Eid said. “Like when a family who just got out of war from all of these horrors, all of these bad things that they’ve been through, and they come to a country like the United States, where they expect to find themselves welcomed and safe, and they start hearing all of this hostile media, it’s very normal for them to feel afraid.”
Those Syrians who have talked have “media fatigue,” said Omar Hossino, director of public relations at the Syrian American Council.
Which means that Syrian refugee voices aren’t informing much of America’s political debate over what should happen to them. And because there are only about 2,000 Syrian refugees who have been resettled across the United States, there aren’t many voices to hear.
What do Syrian refugee families want the American public to know?
“These families want people to understand that if it were safe for them to stay in their homelands they would,” said a staffer at a refugee resettlement organization. She recounted one Syrian refuge whom she works with telling her, “I didn’t want to leave my home. It’s not like I wanted to come to the U.S. I needed to escape.”
Advocates of toughening restrictions on Syrians being resettled in the U.S. have raised the issue as a national security concern and say they’re not trying to discriminate against any one group.
“The way we look at this issue is … we have a refugee situation that we think requires a pause and a more comprehensive assessment on how to guarantee members of ISIS are not infiltrating themselves among the refugee population,” Speaker Paul D. Ryan said on Nov. 17 after the GOP’s weekly conference meeting.
But Eid has doubts about that.
“Well no, they’re just worried about their polls, just worried about their numbers. They want to become popular.”