WORCESTER — Mahmoud Al Nayef waited for a break in the shelling that had pulverized his hometown in Syria, then grabbed his mother and brothers and ran. His neighbors followed on that winter’s day in 2012, jumping into taxis and waving down cars to flee. He hoped to return in a few days.
Instead, this year he arrived in Worcester, one of more than 2,000 Syrian refugees who have made it to the United States since a civil war erupted in 2011 — and only 72 in Massachusetts. He said he would have gone anywhere, but resettlement officials told him he had to go to the United States. And they told him he had to go alone.
“They chose the country for me,” Nayef, 30, said through a translator in an interview at a local mosque. “I never thought to come to America.”
Now he is afraid that the growing political backlash against Syrians following the terrorist attacks in Paris will prevent his mother and three brothers from joining him in a city where he has felt at peace for the first time since before the war.
This week Governor Charlie Baker and more than half the nation’s governors called for a halt to Syrian refugees, fearing that federal security measures were inadequate to keep terrorists out of the United States. On Thursday, the House of Representatives voted to toughen the screening process.
“The first duty of our government is to keep the American people safe,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, said.
The vote followed one of the worst terrorist attacks in Paris history, killing at least 129 people. Authorities say the suspected mastermind of the plot, a Belgian national born in Morocco, had spent time in Syria with the Islamic State militant group, which claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Syrian refugees say they are the victims of the terrorist group, and the Syrian army’s brutal attacks on rebel forces. More than 200,000 people have been killed in the war and 4 million have fled to other countries, making them the largest refugee group in the world.
On Wednesday, a handful of Syrian refugees gathered in the basement of a Worcester mosque, which still resembles the white-shingled church it once was, to share their stories. Many refugees have been too afraid to speak. But these refugees said they wanted to participate in the debate over their future.
“I don’t care what the governor thinks,” said Nayef, sitting on a chair at the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester surrounded by other refugees. “I only care what the American people think.”
Refugees said Americans have welcomed them in Worcester, a diverse city of 182,000 that has taken in 25 refugees from Syria — the highest number in Massachusetts. Refugees said they receive some federal aid for food and housing and nonprofits help them learn English and find jobs.
“Worcester good, very good,” said Jamil Abdi, a 65-year-old grandfather from Syria, flashing a broad smile and a thumbs-up sign that prompted laughter from the other refugees.
Asked how he stayed so upbeat, his eyes filled with tears.
“Don’t get deceived by that,” said Abdi. “There’s a lot of hurt behind it.”
He said he missed his children and grandchildren, who also fled Syria and now are scattered in Turkey and Canada. Only one is in the United States. In Syria, his wife, Nazo, used to baby-sit the grandchildren; now she can only see their latest photos online.
To come to America, refugees undergo long background checks that involve fingerprints, photographs, and interviews with the refugees, their families, and people from their towns. Some interviews last up to eight hours. The entire process can take years.
Nayef said Homeland Security officials told him during his interview that he would be under surveillance in the United States until he became a citizen. He said anything is better than what he suffered in Syria.
He owned a small factory in the city of Homs, which records show suffered one of the worst massacres of the war in the winter of 2012. He fled to Jordan and tried to start another business but was the victim of a scam. After he left in July for the United States, he said, his mother and brothers were forced to return to Syria and are again trying to flee, this time to Turkey.
A few weeks ago, a cousin in Syria disappeared after soldiers occupied his home. In Worcester, his new landlord gave Nayef a break on the rent. He found a job cleaning bloodied hospital linens for $9 an hour. An American even gave him directions to the mosque. His roommate, Mohammad Al Asmi, also a Syrian refugee, said he loved the United States so much he hung US flags over his bed. “I feel at home here,” Nayef said.
Mohamad Shami, a 47-year-old father of four who arrived with his wife and children this summer, said many Syrians are skeptical that any refugees were involved in the Paris attacks. A Syrian passport was found at one of the scenes, but he said fake Syrian documents are easy to find.
“I think it’s wrong that the opinion is changing,” he said. “Why should the Syrian refugees suffer the consequences?”
Shami said he fled Aleppo after he was awakened in the middle of the night by the sounds of his neighbor’s door being smashed in, followed by screams. He cracked his door and saw his neighbor being led away in handcuffs, a bag over his head.
Shami fled to Turkey with his wife and four children, ages 12 to 17, but was dismayed when schools refused to let them enroll. In Turkey, his children had to work alongside him making shoes.
But after the family arrived in Worcester this summer, the children enrolled in school. “They are ‘A’ students,” Shami said, beaming.
He and his wife work at FedEx Corp., where he unloads boxes and she scans them. He looked exhausted but said he wasn’t. “It’s still better than what I have over there,” he said. “I’m safe here. I don’t fear for my life.”
Among the volunteers helping the refugees in Worcester are longtime immigrants who are naturalized citizens. Two who voted for Baker said they were taken aback when the governor questioned allowing Syrian refugees here. They have encouraged the refugees to get involved in civic life.
“That is what I’m trying to instill in the community here. The American values,” said Tahir Ali, a native of Pakistan who came to America in the 1970s. “You have to see beyond the politicians. You have to see the American people directly and how they treat you.”