After a half year living in the United States, Fadi Antar knows what many Americans think about him and fellow refugees from the Syrian civil war.
“If you guys are scared of us, I just want to say we didn’t come here to fight,” he told a room filled with people at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church last week. “We didn’t come here to cause violence. We didn’t come here to do anything. We just want to have a peaceful place to live and that’s why we left our homes. If tomorrow there was a no-fly zone and they stopped Assad from dropping these bombs and killing his people, we would immediately go back and live in Syria.”
More than 300 people came to Rodef Shalom to share a meal and listen to stories from Antar and other Syrian refuges, all of whom have settled in the Washington and Baltimore areas.
The Syrian refugee crisis, said to be the largest since World War II, has played a major role in the presidential campaign, with presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump calling for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration to the United States. After last year’s Paris terrorist attacks and San Bernardino shootings, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has said he will not prevent Syrian refugees from coming to his state. Maryland. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced a temporary ban on Nov. 17, the same day Antar and his family landed in Baltimore.
Hogan’s decision prompted outrage from a number of Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, whose members were among people protesting outside the governor’s mansion in Annapolis in the days that followed. Antar was among them.
At Rodef Shalom, he talked about his family’s flight on foot from Syria to Jordan, where they lived for three years before applying for resettlement in the United States.
“I was sitting in my house when a missile directly struck us when we were in the house,” Antar said through interpreter Omar Hossino. “It went into the room next to the room that I was in, so I said, ‘Next time it’s going to kill us. Let’s get out of here.’”
The family’s successful application for resettlement through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees involved a six-hour interrogation, which they had to endure twice in order to verify their answers to the questions the first time around.
“They want to know who gave birth to you, who your ancestors are,” he said. “In every question, they wanted to learn every single detail about our lives.”
Hossino, who works as the director of outreach for the Syrian American Council, which sponsored the dinner with New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and the Greater Washington Muslim-Jewish Forum, said his organization’s top priority is to advocate for safe conditions in Syria by calling for a no-fly zone.
The suggestion has been embraced by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton but not by President Barack Obama, who has committed to allowing 10,000 Syrians into the country this year. Hossino said that is only a short-term response to the refugee crisis.
“There’s 2,000 people that leave Syria a day and we want to bring in 10,000 people,” he said. “If we brought 100,000 people like some of the big refugee advocates are calling for, that’s two months of refugees. It’s still not going to solve the underlying problem because with each person you take, you have to talk about the underlying security issues, economic issues and other issues.”
Hossino said the United States should accept Syrian refugees, vetting them through existing immigration procedures.
“We understand, and obviously we want the vetting to be as strict as possible,” he said. “At the same time, the solution’s not to completely stop people from coming at all. There’s a way to bring people in while being tough and safe.”
Hossino added that the Jewish community has been one of the strongest advocates for assisting Syrian refugees. He cited a letter that more than 1,000 rabbis signed in December that condemned governors who have vowed to block refugees and called on politicians to “exercise moral leadership” by easing barriers to entry.
One of the letter’s signers was Rodef Shalom’s Rabbi Jeffrey Saxe, who said in an interview that Jews have a moral obligation to “welcome the stranger” given that they have had the experience refugees themselves.
“We as Jews are called on in the Torah to welcome the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt,” he said. “Given that and given our own experience as American Jews coming to this country and receiving help and being accepted, it’s especially important for us to counter the messages that many refugees I think are hearing right now that is negative.”
Rodef Shalom in the past welcomed Vietnamese and Soviet refugees, and Saxe said the congregation plans to sponsor a family this year as well, although he is not sure if it will be a Syrian family. The congregation is in the process of raising funds to help with living expenses for the family and is joining with Lutheran Social Services in the effort.
Saxe said he hoped last week’s dinner would help create a more welcoming environment for Syrian refugees despite the current anti-refugee rhetoric.
“I feel that they’re getting so many messages that they’re not welcome in this country, and we want to give them messages that they are welcome,” he said.