JERSEY CITY, UNITED STATES: Hussam al Roustom lost everything in Syria. After fleeing the horrors of war, he’s working 12-hour night shifts in a bakery, learning English and watching his children flourish in America.
After resettling in Jersey City as a refugee, he now has a message for the country that gave him a second chance.
“Syrians are not terrorists,” he told reporters, speaking on the same day that the House of Representatives voted to ban Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the United States without tougher screening measures.
It was the first legislative response to last week’s terror attacks in Paris over fears that one of the attackers may have entered Europe by posing as a Syrian migrant.
Syrian refugees have become a political football in US election season, with Republicans determined to stop President Barack Obama’s pledge to resettle 10,000 in the coming year.
Obama has threatened to veto the bill and accuses Republicans of “hysteria.” Republicans defend the measure as a common-sense necessity after extremists slaughtered 129 people in Paris.
“The Syrian people like to work, they want to live… they yearn for a better freedom, a better opportunity,” Roustom said.
“They are the ones who are fleeing from terrorists, they’re not going to… create terrorism in another country.”
Since October 2011, America has admitted fewer than 2,180 Syrian refugees. Turkey has taken in two million, Lebanon more than one million and Jordan more than 500,000.
The Rostoums were the first of just four Syrian families to be resettled in Jersey City, a city of 262,000 where around 41 per cent of the population is foreign born.
At least 27 US state governors oppose taking in further Syrians. The issue burst into ugly view this week when a vetted family of three was rerouted out of Indiana, and sent to Connecticut.
But the resettlement program, overseen by the federal government, goes on.
“At this moment in time, it’s business as usual,” said Mahmoud Mahmoud, director of the Church World Service, the local agency in charge in Jersey City.
He is frustrated by the fear mongering. US refugee vetting is already the most stringent in the world, taking on average 12 to 24 months for various federal agencies to approve each person.
Roustom said his family trekked four and a half hours through the desert to Jordan, when they realized they could no longer survive.
“We reached a point in Syria when we couldn’t even find food. We couldn’t find medicine for children.”
His daughter was a year old at the time, and the shops ran out of her milk. “That’s when I decided to leave.”
Speaking in Arabic through a translator, he described Thursday’s vote as “upsetting” and “depressing.”
His children had never seen a park until coming to America. In the refugee camp they had no toys.
His seven-year-old son, who is autistic, is getting treatment and an education that he could never have had in Syria.
At home in Homs, Roustom owned a supermarket and a metal-working business. Now he measures out loafs of bread — a hard won promotion.
“Before I left, there was a little bit of fear, fear of the unknown, fear of starting my life from scratch.
“But once I arrived, I found it to be contrary. I found the welcome to be amazing,” he said.
Refugees resettled in the United States are supported for only 30-90 days of their new life. After that it’s up to them.
They are picked up at the airport, given an apartment furnished through donations, and given help enrolling their children in school and finding a job.
It has never happened, Mahmoud said, that a family could not become self-sufficient after the 90-day maximum ends.
“They’re all sustainable and doing great,” he said.
Out of the 60 million refugees around the world — the largest number since World War II — 90 per cent are settled in neighbouring states, while only one percent are resettled in third countries, Mahmoud said.
Donald Trump, the lead Republican candidate for the White House, said in an interview to air Friday, that he would ban all Syrian refugees — Christians and Muslims — from entering the country.
And his main rival, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, on Thursday compared Syrian refugees to rabid dogs.
Rights groups warn that such positioning merely plays into the hands of extremist groups — a sentiment White House hopeful Hillary Clinton echoed in fleshing out plans to defeat IS.
“Turning away orphans, applying a religious test, discriminating against Muslims, slamming the door on every Syrian refugee — that is just not who we are,” she said.
“We should be doing more to ease this humanitarian crisis, not less.”