This post is part of a series highlighting what Syrian refugees in the United States are saying. Part 1 focuses on their opposition to terrorism. Part 2 describes their desire to contribute economically. Part 4 highlights their positive views of the United States.
When they aren’t being erroneously denounced as terrorists, Syrian refugees have a similarly unjustified reputation as fundamentalists who oppose liberty. Since the Paris attacks, Syrian refugees here have had many opportunities to speak to local papers and news outlets about their views on our freedoms, and the result is unanimous: they love them.
Saleh Sbenaty who escaped Syria to Nashville explained to the Nashville Scene that he wanted to come to the United States specifically because of its freedoms. “I immigrated to the U.S. and left my family and home because of my freedom,” he said. “I also wanted to ensure such freedom is protected, not only for my children, but also for everyone else. I strongly believe in the U.S. Constitution and will fight to protect it, period! Everyone in my community felt the same way.”
Nidal Alhayak, a Syrian who received asylum and is living in Michigan, interprets his flight to the United States in the same way. “First of all, I consider myself fortunate that I made it to the United States,” he told NPR in November. “I consider it the number one country for democracy and freedom for humanity worldwide.” Noor Eddin who is living in Kentucky agrees. “This is the Western world,” he told the Washington Post. “They respect the rights of a human being.”
The connection between the United States and liberty is engrained into their perceptions of the nation. Radwan, Syrian refugee in Ohio, told his local CBS affiliate: “I came here, to the freedom country.” Hussam Al Roustom saw his decision to flee Syria to New Jersey similarly. “We reached to a point it’s either death, or live with dignity or freedom,” he said.
Rama Al Najjar, a 16-year-old Syrian in Kentucky, found the sudden negative reaction to Syrian refugees puzzling. “Why are people afraid of us?” she asked reporters in Lexington. “We’ve escaped a war. We just want to live in a free country…. [There] was no freedom… for the people over there.”
Safera and her husband Khalid were resettled in Las Vegas, Nevada – not exactly the most common location for resettlement. But even with the extremes that a free country allows, Safera says that living here changed their view of it. “We had to Google it,” she told the Las Vegas Sun in December. “We read about its image as a sin city. But when we came here, we liked it.”
One Syrian father in Toledo, Ohio spoke of his vision of a freer future for his children. “We want them live in liberty and have choices in life,” he said, “and be able to make their own decisions and… equality, yes.”
Syrians’ naturally favorable impression of U.S. liberty was tarnished for one refugee family who were redirected away to Connecticut after Indiana’s governor rejected them. “We are coming to an open country,” the father told the New York Times. “A country with freedoms,” his wife added. “We felt rejected,” he continued. “How could that be the freedoms that we hear about?” His wife added that her idea of America was one where “people are accepted regardless of their backgrounds or what their ideologies are.”
The issue highlights an irony in the anti-Muslim proposals from states across the country. If politicians want Muslims to embrace the United States, they would be wise to protect America’s liberties. “Minnesota is a lovely place that Syrians would love a lot,” Bashar Alakkad who escaped Syria explained to his local station. When asked to list the reasons for why he wanted to stay here, he said, “First of all there are no checkpoints.”
Yet some politicians are acting as if they think this should change. Sen. Ted Cruz, for example, has called on U.S. police to target—“patrol and secure”—Muslim American neighborhoods. Such ethnic profiling, however, will not have the impact he wants. As one Syrian refugee in Chicago put it, “What we love most here is that there is no discrimination between people.” He adds, “Everybody minds their own business.”
What could be more American?
Most Syrians just shake their heads when reporters ask them about profiling Muslims. “Syrians are war refugees. We’re not all in ISIS,” Elamri, a Syrian refugee in Boston, told Boston Magazine. He notes that Syria has a long tradition of commingling religious groups. “Syria is a land of civilization, of Christianity and Islam.”
Syrian refugees around the United States are also condemning terrorism. It’s the violence that made them flee, and the reason that they flee to America is liberty. Instead of undermining that reputation with calls to deport Muslim refugees, restrict Muslim immigration, or profile their neighborhoods, we’d be better off defending their liberty.