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opinion | Alex Kingsbury

From suffering in Syria to safety in Conn.

Destroyed buildings were seen in an area of Homs that was recaptured by Syrian government forces in 2013. JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images/file 2014

Trembling in their house in the blasted-out Syrian city of Homs, Ahmad, his wife, his son, and his daughter listened for the barrel bombs. They had been falling on the neighborhood for the past three days with the frequency and randomness of raindrops.

Yet for all its haphazardness, the conflict had assumed a terrifying regularity. The buzz of a war plane. Then a deep, heavy thump as yet another structure in their little corner of the city was blown to smithereens.

And then there were the knocks at the door. Two houses down, a simple rap of the knuckles had preceded a frenzy of violence. Their neighbors were not strong enough to keep out the soldiers, Ahmad’s wife, Hana, says. The women in the house were raped before their throats were slit. The men were simply shot.


Ahmad is a proud man. Not, he insists, a coward. He owned their house in Homs and a little store nearby, too. He didn’t want to leave, but his frightened family was running out of options: Their elder son had been conscripted; Ahmad’s father-in-law had died of a gunshot wound to the leg; a cousin had vanished into the vortex of the government prison system.

Meanwhile, Ahmad’s store was shuttered, and the bombs were getting closer.

“There was a moment. We decided it was better to die running away in the streets than to have the house collapse on top of us,” Ahmad says, “so we took what we could carry and we ran.”

Endless months on the run ended last month in New Haven.

They now live in a two-bedroom rental apartment in a decent part of town. But they still have nightmares. “There was a time when every plane that flew over made me want to find shelter,” says Ahmad’s 17-year-old son, Abdullah.


With the righteous rage that only a young man can muster, Abdullah’s eyes narrow, and he bangs his finger on the table. “What the world needs to do, is go to Syria and end the war. Remove the regime. Stop Russia and Iran. Fight!” he says.

His father, 50 years old, rotund and pensive, pushes his chair back from the table, adjusts his glasses, and shakes his head with a sigh. “Whatever happens, I’ll never go back.” He looks at Hana, who nods silently. “There’s nothing left to go back to.”

[The Globe granted the family anonymity — and agreed not to use their real first names — because, like many refugees, they fear for the safety of both themselves and their extended family members still in Syria and elsewhere in the region.]

. . .

The nonprofit Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, or IRIS, resettles about 250 people a year in the New Haven area. This year, the group has resettled four Syrian families. They are just a handful of the roughly 1,500 individuals from that country who have been allowed into the United States since the civil war began.

That’s a tiny fraction of the 4 million Syrians who have fled. And it’s an even smaller percentage of the nearly 60 million refugees worldwide today, the largest displaced persons crisis since World War II.

While the Syrians have received the most publicity in recent months, they are only part of a global challenge. The city of New Haven, for instance, is now home to refugees fleeing violence and persecution in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, Eritrea, and Somalia.


Refugees from several of those countries sat through English lessons together, as card-carrying Americans, in a classroom at IRIS this week, while their children played together with a wooden toy train set in the playroom across the hall.

The federal government requires that these newly arrived refugees be given — on arrival — a hot meal, culturally appropriate to their tastes. All refugees are also given a bill for the cost of their plane ticket. While interest-free, the cost of the ticket must be paid back in monthly installments beginning six months after they set foot on US soil. Welcome to America, here’s some debt.

Next, groups like IRIS pick up refugees from the airport, find them an apartment, furnish it, and help them navigate the labyrinthine paperwork process involved in getting a Social Security number and driver’s license, and applying for social services. Within a year, most refugees are on their feet, says Will Kneerim, director of employment and education services at IRIS.

. . .

Truth be told, says caseworker Andrew Salyer, there was nothing special about the case of Ahmad and his family when it was placed on his desk. “They’re here, fleeing the terrible, because they have nowhere else to go. Just like everyone else.”

There can come a moment, perhaps after seeing the photograph of a dead child on a distant, sandy shore, when the absence of action is no longer sufficient.


For Salyer, that moment came years ago, one night on guard duty in Afghanistan.

The US Navy enlistee had been assigned to guard a Taliban prisoner who’d needed emergency kidney surgery. Even doped-up on the finest pain medicine the American military could offer and confined to a hospital bed, prisoners still need to be watched. Salyer had drawn the short straw.

Then, to his mild annoyance, his groggy prisoner asked for food. So Salyer walked to the mess hall and fetched a tray with sliced turkey and green peas. One spoonful at a time, the sailor began to feed the ailing militant.

“I was there looking into the eyes of my sworn enemy, feeding him like the dying man he was, and I just realized that my work in this world wasn’t done. You do [bad] things in war and I realized, at that moment, that I needed to balance the scales,” Salyer says.

To pay his karmic debts, as well as his rent, Salyer, 29, now works as an IRIS case manager.

He’s been on the job six months since he left the Navy and says that his time in conflict zones has given him a small measure of credibility and rapport with the refugees he counsels. “They might be different wars, but we all have the memories,” he says.

. . .

Whatever its failings, the United States has not been inactive in the face of the Syrian refugee crisis. President Obama last week called for accepting 10,000 additional Syrian refugees. Though it is not photogenic, US taxpayers have also spent some $4 billion in general humanitarian aid since the war began.


But it is impossible to look at a country like Germany accepting 835,000 refugees from Syria alone and think that the United States is pulling its weight. The country would need to accept 3 million Syrians to measure up, percentage-wise. If that number seems outlandish, consider this: the United States has taken in 3 million refugees since 1975, including more than 200,000 in 1980 alone.

“I have friends, veterans, who say things like: ‘This country treats its veterans like crap, why should we help them?’ And I say, that’s not the moral way to look at it,” says Salyer. “We do treat our veterans badly. The VA is a mess. But those things being true doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility that we have to other people who need help.”

In a deeply religious country, built by immigrants, his is a surprisingly controversial position.

Republican senator and presidential candidate Lindsey Graham is blunt. If the United States fails to take in more refugees from Syria, we “should take the Statue of Liberty and tear it down . . . because we don’t mean it anymore,” he said recently at a luncheon at the National Press Club in Washington.

Graham’s Senate colleague Chris Murphy is equally direct. Unwillingness to help Syrian refugees “says something very dark” about the country, he said after a tour of the IRIS offices this week.

The junior senator from Connecticut, a Democrat, just returned from a visit to refugee camps in the Middle East and proposed that the government reallocate the $500 million Congress approved to train Syrian fighters and use it to help refugees instead. By way of comparison, the effort to train Syrian rebels has thus far resulted in a grand total of 60 active fighters, which makes the average cost, per fighter, $4 million.

The Graham-Murphy pronouncements are a rare bit of bipartisan comity on an issue that tends to split the nation along party lines. A new poll from CNN finds that 55 percent of Republicans oppose admitting more Syrian refugees, while 65 percent of Democrats support doing so. From sea to sea, just 55 percent of the country backs admitting more Syrians.

Several of the GOP contenders for the nation’s highest office have used the refugee crisis as a cudgel against the Obama White House for not being more militarily involved in the Syrian conflict. The aid-worker community, for its part, is quick to point out that the second-largest group of refugees worldwide are from Afghanistan, a country into which the United States poured significant amounts of both blood and treasure.

It seems that no amount of suffering can assuage the country’s fear of foreigners.

This political tension explains why, standing in front of the small group of Syrians who now share his ZIP code, Murphy is quick to repeatedly emphasize the importance of screening out potential terrorists from the ranks of the legitimate refugees. The word “vigilant” comes up.

That might be good politics in a country where a fear of terrorism far outweighs the actual risk of it. But obligatory mentions of terrorism whenever refugees are discussed badly distorts a sober analysis of both issues.

“The irony about security fears is that refugees are among the most scrutinized, investigated people in the country,” says IRIS executive director Chris George. The average refugee waits more than 1,000 days to get to the country and undergoes extensive screening by the US government. When you’re a refugee worried about your next meal, such timelines are geologic in length.

. . .

Ahmad and his family discuss their ordeal in Homs as if it was yesterday. But they actually fled their home in Homs three years ago. Their path to New Haven has wound through a series of refugee camps around the Middle East, where Ahmad’s older son is still held in limbo.

Yet asked about his three-year wait to get to the United States, Ahmad turns the conversation to his family’s good fortune.

“This is the land of freedom,” he says, looking with a smile at his 8-year-old daughter, who won’t sit still. “I would do it again for my children.” More than half of the refugees fleeing the violence in Syria are children, according to the United Nations.

In the end, Ahmad adds, the best thing about Connecticut is that all his worries are now blissfully pedestrian. “We have food. We have electricity all day,” he says. “Here, we do not fear.”

Alex Kingsbury, the deputy editor of the Globe’s Ideas section, can be reached at alex.kingsbury@globe.com.


William Lambers: Send food aid to starving Syrians

Editorial: Peace in Syria requires better Saudi-Iran relations

Timothy Snyder: Warnings from another refugee crisis

Stephen Kinzer: Today’s refugee crisis is the price for yesterday’s interventions

The Internationalist: A daring plan to rebuild Syria — no matter who wins the war