Ismail Al-Rifai and his wife Safa, who once lived in fear of murder and torture but now feel secure in their home in Chicago, testified the perils and hardships of living in Syria and its neighboring countries at a press conference Friday afternoon.
Amid the Syrian government forces’ execution of violent crackdown, indiscriminately killing civilians using airstrikes and other weapons, the Al-Rifais along with their four children left their home in Homs, a southern city of Syria, in 2012, in search of a safe haven. They walked miles and miles to cross the Jordanian border and waited almost two years to finally settle in Chicago in November 2014.
“We were just escaping war, looking for safety,” Isamil said in Arabic, while struggling to stand still due to his leg injury in Syria. “So it's really terrible, the recent news of lawmakers [trying to stop other Syrians from arriving]. We really wish that other families will be able to come like we did because the situation is not stable in Jordan or Lebanon.”
Following the U.S. House of Representatives' passing of the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act, a bill that aims to toughen refugee screening standards Thursday, the press conference was held by Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) and other Syrian refugee advocacy groups in Chicago to urge Gov. Bruce Rauner (R-IL) to welcome and champion the resettlement of Syrian refugees.
“Shame on you Gov. Rauner. Shame on you for saying that we will not take refugees,” said U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Chicago) who stood with refugee advocates. “Since 911, we have not had a single incident of one of these people [Syrian refugees] being a threat to the U.S, and these are people who themselves are victims of violence, not perpetrators of violence.”
After the terrorist attacks in Paris, Rauner, along with 30 other governors across the country, has been maintaining a temporary pause to accepting Syrian refugees into the U.S. and expressed the need for a full review of security processes by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. However, the advocate groups argued that the vetting process for Syrian refugees is intense as it stands -- taking up to two years. They said the U.S. government prioritizes admitting only the most vulnerable Syrians, mostly women, children and individuals with severe medical conditions, and thus, only two percent of the refugees who have been allowed in the country are men of fighting age.
Schakowsky said putting another layer of scrutiny would “make it impossible to allow any Syrian refugee into the U.S."
However, Schakowsky said the governor actually has no legal authority when it comes to immigration or to suspend placement of refugees into the state. Nevertheless, the groups said it is important the governor change his mind because he has power to withhold funds for local resettlement agencies such as Refugee One and World Relief.
“If we have a governor who is anti-refugee, he's going to freeze these funds, and these resettlement agencies just can't work even if the refugees were to come,” ICIRR CEO Lawrence Benito said.
Prior to the conference, ICIRR and other advocates including Syrian Community Network met with the governor's deputy chief of staff on Friday morning to convey their position on the refugee issue. They were told, however, they needed to do their own due diligence to ensure Illinois’ security.
The debate regarding Syrian refugees has gained momentum after the U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill, which requires refugees from Syria and Iraq to receive background screenings by the FBI and the Director of National Intelligence, in addition to the Department of Homeland Security screening. The vote succeeded 289-137 with almost all Republicans and 47 Democrats voting in favor.
President Barack Obama, however, has promised to veto the bill if it is passed by the U.S. Senate.
“I think it is unlikely that the House bill will become law,” Schakowsky said. “In order to sustain a veto, you need one third of the House. Only a few more Democrats would have to switch their vote.”
At the conference, the advocates said refugees are part of the fabric of Illinois and the U.S.
“Illinois has had a long history of welcoming immigrants and refugees and we would like the governor and the members of the Congress to consider that in the future,” Benito said.