Annapolis's sole Syrian refugee fighting for acceptance as Maryland governor calls for refugee ban
Mostafa Hassoun, 23, faces the usual challenges of a refugee but also a hostile political climate in U.S.
Annapolis, Md. — Mostafa Hassoun, 23, is the only Syrian refugee living in Annapolis, a quaint, wealthy Republican town of 40,000 best known for being home to the U.S. Naval Academy.
His story is not unlike that of the thousands of Syrians who have arrived in recent months in various cities and towns across Canada, where, like Hassoun, they feel both welcome and like complete outsiders, but he has something else to contend with, too: a political climate that has been much less friendly to the new arrivals.
Syrian people are like Americans: we want freedom.- Mostafa Hassoun , Syrian refugee
"Most people watch CNN or FOX news, and many people don't really know about Syria," said Hassoun during an interview in an Annapolis coffee shop last week. "They just know ISIS."
Put more simply, Hassoun said, "U.S. people have an Islamic problem."
One of those you could say has an "Islamic problem" is the current Republican governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, who also lives in Annapolis.
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Hogan is one of about 30 mostly Republican governors in the U.S. who have said they don't want Syrian refugees to be settled in their states for fear that they pose a security risk. The governors have no real power to bar entry, though, as immigration is federally controlled.
"I want to talk to him," said Hassoun, speaking in the basic English he's learned since arriving here June 15. "He wants to make the U.S. safe. Well, I want to tell him that not all Syrians like terrorism. Syrian people are like Americans: we want freedom."
While the governor has refused to meet with Hassoun — or any of the other Syrian refugees who have been protesting in recent months in the state capital — the newcomer has managed to change the minds of some in his adopted town. For the first six weeks after he arrived in the U.S., he stayed with the family of Bailey Ulbricht, 22, who met Hassoun while teaching English to refugees in Antakya, Turkey.
"He's changed so many people's perspectives on Syria," she said. "In my family alone, there were some conservative views. The impact is huge in this community."
Recent attacks inflamed anti-refugee rhetoric
After the extremist attacks in Paris last November and in San Bernardino in early December, the anti-Muslim, anti-Syrian refugee rhetoric in the U.S. has ramped up.
While in Canada taking in Syrian refugees has become a "national project," as Immigration Minister John McCallum has called it, it's a harder sell in the U.S.
When Hassoun saw a Facebook post showing Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcoming the first flight of refugees at Pearson International Airport in December, he was blown away.
"He is young. He is so nice. He is good, so good," said Hassoun. "Can he come to Annapolis to meet people?"
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The U.S., which on a global scale, resettles more refugees than any other country, has brought in around 2,500 Syria refugees since 2011. The overall White House goal is 10,000 by the end of 2016, but some doubt whether that will be met.
White House attempts charm offensive
Meanwhile, Obama's White House continues to try to convince Americans that the influx of refugees won't compromise their security, even inviting one high-profile Syrian refugee to sit in on the state of the union address this week.
After the attacks in Paris, the White House released a simplistic, animated video narrated by Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson called "Meet Reema" that outlines the "rigorous security screening process" that refugees go through.
"Taking in refugees at times of crisis is simply the right thing to do," Johnson says in the video. "We can and will ensure our own security."
Still, the idea is not playing well with many state politicians or the general public and has drawn criticism from three of the leading Republican candidates for the presidential nomination — Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
Refugee process in Canada vs. U.S.
|Number accepted||More than 10,000 to date, about half of whom are privately sponsored; federal goal is 25,000 by March 2016||2,500 to date; federal goal is 10,000 by end of 2016 (U.S. doesn't allow private sponsorship)|
|Processing time||Under current expedited process, as quick as several days or weeks from when UNHCR approves an individual as a refugee||18-24 months|
|Travel costs||Travel costs for Syrian refugees who arrived after Nov. 4, 2015, are covered by the federal government. Others must repay the costs within one to six years, depending on the amount||Must start repaying travel costs within six months of arrival|
1 year until eligible for a Green Card; five years until eligible for citizenship
Trump's first television ad, released in early January, went so far as to call for a "temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States," something that drew outrage when he first proposed it in December.
Hassoun is exasperated by Trump and this kind of talk.
"Do you know how hard it is to come to the United States?" he asked. "It's sooo hard to come to the U.S."
A middle-class life disrupted by war
Hassoun was living a middle-class life in Bedama, a suburb of Idlib in northwest Syria, when demonstrations against the government of Bashar al-Assad began in 2011. It wasn't long until Assad's military arrived and began squashing the protests in his town.
Hassoun said his best friend was imprisoned for taking photos of protestors and eventually died in prison after being tortured for seven months.
When it became too dangerous for Hassoun's family to stay in their house, his father got Hassoun's mother and siblings together and told them they were leaving for Turkey for a couple of weeks.
They only brought a few items of clothing each, but those weeks turned into eight months in Reyhanli refugee camp, where they all lived together in one tent, and then, into four years living in limbo in Antakya without any official status.
Hassoun and his family wanted to come to the U.S. He waited 15 months to finally be accepted, but everyone else in his family was denied.
In Turkey, he was repeatedly interviewed by representatives of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the UNHCR and the International Catholic Migration Commission. He was finger-printed, iris-scanned and asked about every detail of his life.
Still, he said, when he first saw the email informing him he had been accepted by the U.S., he couldn't believe it and immediately ran to tell his family.
"The U.S., it's my dream, even before the revolution," said Hassoun.
As a boy, he had wanted to study in the U.S. because he had watched Syrians with a U.S. education become successful in their fields and also because he wanted to become an architect and liked U.S. architecture and design.
Long road ahead
It's a mystery to Hassoun as to why he was the only one in his family accepted to the U.S. given that young, male refugees from Syria have generally faced more suspicion than women, children or older individuals.
Ulbricht thinks the fact that he worked with Americans at the International Medical Corps in Turkey and learned a bit of English helped his case.
The rest of his family has since resettled in Sweden.
It will be five years before Hassoun will have the chance to get U.S. citizenship and apply for a passport, five years before he can travel outside the country to see his family again.
There are 15,000 people in my home village. I know them all. Here, it is so hard to know people.- Mostafa Hassoun
For now, he's moved out of the Ulbricht home and into a rooming house above an ice cream shop on one of Annapolis's main streets.
He has a full-time job bagging groceries at Whole Foods, earning $11 an hour. He hopes to start school in the fall, with the help of money raised through a GoFundMe page set up by Ulbricht to help him finance his education.
In the meantime, his biggest challenge is trying to fit in.
"There are 15,000 people in my home village. I know them all," said Hassoun. "Here, it is so hard to know people. I don't understand American people, what they like and don't like."