DePaul Syrian students react to anti-refugee sentiment

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Members of DePaul's chapter of Students Organize 4 Syria volunteer with refugee children. Members of the chapter are concerned about Gov. Rauner's announcement that he does not support welcoming Syrian refugees. (Photo courtesy of STUDENTS ORGANIZE 4 SYRIA)

Members of DePaul’s chapter of Students Organize 4 Syria volunteer with refugee children. Members of the chapter are concerned about Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s announcement that he does not support welcoming Syrian refugees. (Photo courtesy of STUDENTS ORGANIZE 4 SYRIA)

Laughter resonated last week from inside DePaul’s United Muslims Moving Ahead Center where DePaul student Salman Mohammad hangs out with his friends in between classes.

However, when Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposed to temporarily halt the state’s acceptance of Syrian refugees, the conversation adopted a more concerned tone.

“America is the land of liberty and freedom, and it was built by accepting refugees from other countries,” Mohammad said. “Especially when they’re fleeing ISIS, the same people who attacked Paris last week.”

ISIS claimed responsibility for attacks in Paris Nov. 13 causing a total of 129 deaths. The attacks were executed by three groups of ISIS-backed terrorists, one of which carried a fake Syrian passport. The passport and ISIS’ claims of having trained soldiers on U.S. soil have caused many state governors, including Rauner, to call for a halt of the relocation of Syrian refugees to their states.

Now, some students at DePaul are working to combat these anti-refugee sentiments and raise awareness for the crisis in Syria.

“Having parents that are Palestinian refugees, I’ve been fortunate to have the life that I live,” said Mariam Saleh, co-president of DePaul’s Students Organize 4 Syria.

“My parents are similar to the refugees that (Rauner) is trying to prevent from coming here,” Saleh said. “I also have siblings who are all very well off working as graphic designers, architects, counselors — difference makers. Legislating to close our borders prevents people like my parents and their children from achieving their dreams.”

(Photo courtesy of STUDENTS ORGANIZE 4 SYRIA)

(Photo courtesy of STUDENTS ORGANIZE 4 SYRIA)

Saleh and Students Organize 4 Syria, wrote a letter to Rauner citing reasons he should reconsider his stance on refugees. She also is planning to lead a protest outside of the James R. Thompson Center on Sunday Dec. 6, coordinating SOS with other activist groups including Black Lives Matter and Students for Justice in Palestinian.

President Barack Obama opposed the governor’s outcry to halt the relocation of refugees, stating that the U.S. is not changing its plans to allow the 10,000 refugees in the country he proposed for 2016. Obama also expressed plans to veto a bill being drawn up by the House of Representatives calling for increased background checks for Syrian refugees trying to move into the U.S.

“The U.S. has a very extensive and complete screening process for all its refugees,” said Evyenia Sidereas,  deputy director of the Syria Transition Assistance Response Team, or START.

Sidereas visited DePaul last Tuesday to speak with students interested in careers in Foreign Service.

START helps to provide humanitarian aid to Syrians trying to keep their communities together in the wake of a war zone. Sidereas, who has works with refugees and U.S. immigration law, said the current process to receive a passport can already take up to two years to complete.

Sidereas’ position in the U.S. State Department requires she coordinate with other cabinet administrations including the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense and other agencies including the CIA.

Protesters on opposing sides of the Syrian refugee resettlement issue rally in front of the state Capitol in Olympia, Wash., Friday, Nov. 20, 2015. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has said the state will welcome refugees and has criticized other governors who have threatened to stop accepting them following last week's terror attacks in Paris. (AP Photo/Rachel La Corte)

Protesters on opposing sides of the Syrian refugee resettlement issue rally in front of the state Capitol in Olympia, Wash., Friday, Nov. 20, 2015. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has said the state will welcome refugees and has criticized other governors who have threatened to stop accepting them following last week’s terror attacks in Paris. (AP Photo/Rachel La Corte)

“State governments have no control over who is allowed into the country,” Sidereas said. “Only the federal government has control over immigration policy.”

Under the Refugee Act of 1980 the president can allow “the admission of certain refugees in response to the emergency refugee situation is justified by grave humanitarian concerns or is otherwise in the national interest.”

However, the act also calls for the Office of Refugee Resettlement to work with state and local governments to provide help with the “sponsorship process and the intended distribution of refugees among the states and localities.”

This conflict could prove to be troubling if the state governments are unwilling to cooperate with the Office of Refugee Resettlement and could lead to refugees not being placed in Illinois even though they are not allowed to control immigration.

According to the State Department, Chicago is home to the majority of Illinois’ refugees providing asylum for 105 people. Illinois provides homes for 169 statewide, 131 of which arrived within the last year.

Jumana Kassar, a Syrian DePaul student, feels it is very important that all DePaul students understand what the refugees are running from.

“We have family in Syria, but we don’t keep in contact with them because my dad became very vocally critical of the Syrian government in 2006, and my family was blacklisted,” Kassar said. “We don’t want to cause harm to them for being associated with us.”

The Syrian Civil War began in March 2011 when protesters of President Bashar al-Assad’s government who marched the streets of Damascus were met with violent retaliation in the forms of rubber bullets and tear gas.

“When the rubber bullets and tear gas didn’t stop the protesters, they started using actual bullets and called tanks in,” Kassar said. “Now they’ve even gone as far as to use sarin gas and mustard gas, using them to injure everyone indiscriminately.

Kassar said that ISIS is “the lesser of two evils” when it comes to unrest in Syria. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, ISIS was responsible for less than 5 percent of the civilian deaths in Syria this October, whereas the government was responsible for about 72 percent of the deaths and over 250,000 total.

“It’s very easy to point blame at someone who is other than you,” Kassar said. “In Ferguson, for instance, everyone is pointing blame at the black people for looting and pillaging, but in reality it’s only a small portion of the Black Lives Matter movement who are violently opposing the set norms. I think the Syrian refugees are an easy scapegoat to marginalize.”