The City of Daraa became the inferno of the ongoing Syrian uprising last March in one clean, bloody swipe, when 15 children who had scribbled anti-government phrases on the walls of their school were arrested, beaten and tortured, many of their faces burned with acid. In response, hoards of peaceful protesters took to the streets, only to be riddled with indiscriminating bullets fired by Hezbollah snipers, imported to Syria for the sole purpose of killing anti-regime protestors, according to witnesses who survived the attack. Mosques and churches were transformed into makeshift hospitals. Those detained by government security forces were never seen again. Nobody went into Daraa, and nobody got out.
That is, almost nobody. Khaldoun, who asked that only his first name be used for safety reasons, made a harrowing escape from the besieged city through the mountains and, after 17 hours on foot, landed in Jordan. But the Middle East was not to be his final landing spot. Several months after escaping the carnage at Daraa, Khaldoun would travel more than 7,000 miles to ultimately find refuge in southern California, a stronghold of Syrian immigrants since the 1970s.
Khaldoun is one of hundreds of Syrian refugees now making their way to the United States in the wake of state-sponsored violence against Syrian protestors, many of whom are finding safe haven in the Syrian-American community throughout southern California.
Speaking safely from his new homebase, Khaldoun recalled his participation in those unprecedented protests in Daraa -- protests that he said left him with more than a lifetime of bloodshed and pain. As he marched through the city, protestors on each side of him were shot to death, leaving Khaldoun's clothes completely stained with blood and brain fragments. In a move he can't explain, he saved his soaked shirt, covered it in salt and buried it in the ground, perhaps as evidence of the brutality he had witnessed.
In a country so long suffering from corruption, high unemployment and lack of freedom of speech, staying silent was never an option for the protesters, said Khaldoun, his glistening olive-colored eyes swelling with tears. To turn back in the face of government repression would have meant “that Syrian citizens would remain slaves for the rest of their lives.” The desire of everyday Syrians to spill out peacefully onto the streets came naturally.
“You can't control your legs,” he said, when asked why he decided to participate. “Your legs are carrying you, and the only thing on your mind is that we're getting our chance to say whatever we want – this is a feeling that I have no words to describe.”
After receiving a tip that he was being targeted by Syrian security forces, Khaldoun decided to flee Daraa. With help from the Free Syrian Army, he weathered rain, mudslides and rough terrain before arriving at a Jordanian refugee camp. When efforts to land a job in the Middle East proved fruitless, Khaldoun decided to contact close friends in Irvine, finally arriving in southern California in late May.
Leaving behind his immediate family and a business in Syria has meant a bittersweet transition, but in other ways Khaldoun has been lucky. Already a U.S. citizen -- he came to Michigan in the mid-80s – Khaldoun enjoys benefits unlike most other Syrian refugees.
Salim, like Khaldoun, is a Syrian refugee – he has been in the country 14 months -- but his immigration status in the United States is still undetermined. Hailing from western Syria, Salim (who also asked that his name be changed to protect his identity) joined protesters last year in response to the torturing of children in Khaldoun's hometown of Daraa.
“We just wanted to be treated as humans,” he said. “And we couldn't take this anymore. Especially after we saw so many (other Arab) regimes fall down.”
After three days of protesting, snipers began shooting at the crowd, said Salim. He witnessed two of his friends die, one instantly from a bullet to the neck while the other bled to death from a thigh wound after hospitals refused to treat him, calling him a traitor.
No longer able to defer his military service, Salim learned that his name had been added to Intelligence Service records and it was only a matter of time before [security forces] would come looking for him. With a U.S. tourist visa he’d been granted some time ago, Salim made contact with Southern California's Syrian-American community and arrived in Los Angeles, 23 days after the uprising began last March.
Like many other Syrians who have fled to the United States, Salim applied for asylum through the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program, which allows eligible Syrians who arrived before March 29, 2012 to stay in the United States without threat of deportation. TPS, a program of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), will be in effect for 18 months and also allows refugees to request employment authorization. Currently there are seven countries in addition to Syria -- Haiti, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan -- that are designated for TPS.
According to Mariana Gitomer, the USCIS spokesperson for Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Santa Ana counties, asylum applications from Syrians have increased drastically within the last two years, with 236 applications filed nationally this year, up from 124 filed in 2011 and just 36 in 2010.
Of the 236 applications filed this year, the Los Angeles office has received 67, of which 24 were granted asylum. In 2011, the L.A. office received 40 applications and approved only seven.
While TPS for Syria might be subject to an extension -- local Syrian-American and human rights advocacy groups have been pressuring the U.S. government to do so -- refugees looking to escape unrest for good will need to file for permanent asylum.
“TPS is great and it gives you benefits, but at some point in the future the U.S. government will say, ‘We think Syria has stabilized, and you have to go back now,’” said Wallie Mason, a Los Angeles-based immigration lawyer.
Mason, who has more than 25 years of experience with asylum cases, said that for certain TPS applicants, consulting with an experienced immigration attorney is crucial. Applying for asylum, she said, might actually trigger deportation proceedings if the applicant has a felony, or two or more misdemeanors in the United States on their record. Other issues that could complicate matters include having served in the armed forces of a foreign country, she said.
“Anyone who has served in the Syrian military would be well advised to see an immigration attorney before applying for TPS, as the current government of that nation is considered to be a gross violator of human rights by the international community,” she said.
The upheaval back home and ensuing wave of new immigrants has brought renewed energy to the Syrian-American community in southern California which, although vibrant, hadn’t previously been known for political activism, said Ammar Khaf, a local activist who works with the Los Angeles chapter of the Syrian-American Council.
Though living several thousand miles away in the United States, many Syrian-Americans, said Khaf, still feared persecution before the protests broke out, due to a number of pro-government supporters living amongst them.
“Syrians have always looked behind them whenever they've wanted to say anything about social justice,” he said. “[The uprising has] provided a new hope. Now there's an opportunity; there's no room for people to feel fear.”
Khaf, who said he's met a number of Syrian refugees who fled to southern California, now finds himself part of a movement that he said is allowing Syrians living abroad, such as himself, to help their own people. For Salim, who still has family back home, it also means an opportunity to continue his activism without fear of detainment, torture or death. A steady stream of protests, fundraisers and town hall meetings have been organized since the protests and violence broke out in Syria more than a year ago.
Last week, after more than 100 villagers (many of them children) were killed by Syrian forces in the city of Houla, southern California became the location of a significant milestone for the uprising, when Dr. Hazem Chehabi, a Syrian consul general for the West Coast, resigned his post. He was the first Syrian official to defect from President Bashar Al-Assad's government. Chehabi told NPR that he couldn't “justify remaining silent or remaining in a position that may be perceived, correctly or incorrectly, to have ties to the Syrian government,” adding that the graphic photos of the Houla massacre became a “tipping point.”