Broward County

For Syrian man who made it to South Florida, new fears amid a refugee standoff

Omran Wawieh, 11, left, and Maram, 8, play in the courtyard of a Pomona, California, motel in where they are staying after arriving from Syria, on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015.
Omran Wawieh, 11, left, and Maram, 8, play in the courtyard of a Pomona, California, motel in where they are staying after arriving from Syria, on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015. Tribune News Service

Ahmed Alkader recalls being ecstatic when he learned his family was cleared to come to America. The news was a dream come true for the Syrian native.

“That was the best feeling I ever experienced in my entire life,” said Alkader, 40, who now lives in Fort Lauderdale with his five children and wife, who is pregnant with their sixth child. “I couldn’t sleep I was so excited.”

These days, Alkader fears the American dream may be taken from Syrian refugees as Florida Gov. Rick Scott and about two dozen other governors have stated that they no longer want to accept refugees from Syria, citing concerns following the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris.

“Following the terrorist attacks by ISIS in Paris that killed over 120 people and wounded more than 350, and the news that at least one of the terror suspects gained access to France by posing as a Syrian refugee, our state agency will not support the requests we have received,” said Scott’s letter to U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Every politician has an opinion about Syrian refugees - from governors declaring they will accept or reject refugees to presidential candidates suggesting religion tests, it's hard to know whose word is law on refugees in America. McClatchy politi

Scott acknowledges in his letter that states do not have the power to stop refugees from being accepted into the country — that’s done on a federal level. Instead he asked for Congress to prevent federal “allocations toward the relocation of Syrian refugees without extensive examination into how this would affect our homeland security.”

“I was in disbelief,” Suzy Cop, executive director of the Miami and Tallahassee offices of the International Rescue Committee, said about Scott’s comments. “They go through multiple layers of security checks, making them the most vetted group of people to come to the U.S.”

She says that in some European countries refugees don’t get vetted until they arrive on their shores — mainly because of the way they arrive, often by foot, boat or by car.

To get into the United States, however, a refugee must be vetted before entering the country.

“It’s a very different system,” Cop said.

The process refugees have to go through to come to the United States can take up to two years, and involves a series of interviews. To qualify for resettlement, a refugee must first apply with the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugee Office.

If it's determined that resettlement is a better solution, the U.N. will refer individuals and families to countries taking in refugees.

The potential host country conducts background checks and interviews. If approved for resettlement, agencies like the International Rescue Committee aid families during the transition process.

Cop said the United States has nine locations across the world where refugees are interviewed.

Alkader says his vetting process consisted of monthly interviews over the course of about 18 months. Officials questioned Alkadar and his wife Farida Alabd, 32, in separate rooms, for up to five hours.

“For sure they knew everything about our lives,” Alkader said. “The last three months all their questions were about terrorism, and our family backgrounds.”

Alkader fled Syria for Jordan in May 2011 when the conflict first began. His mission was to find work, then bring over his family. The following year, his wife and children walked for three days over mountains and through a desert to reach a refugee camp where he met them.

After about two weeks, the family left the camp and went to a one-bedroom home that they paid for from charitable donations. They stayed until May, when they passed a nearly two-year screening process to be resettled.

When Alkader first arrived in Jordan, he worked illegally on an olive farm because Syrian refugees aren’t permitted to work there. By the time his family arrived, the work ban was enforced more strictly, so he couldn't work anymore.

Today, the crisis in Syria is being called the “biggest humanitarian crisis in the world today” by the United Nations, resulting in about 4.3 million registered refugees across the world.

The United States has taken in 2,219 refugees from Syria since March 2011, according to the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. A majority of those refugees have come to the country in the past year.

President Barack Obama announced plans this year to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees in the country by 2016, something that some governors and other political leaders don’t want to see happen.

Since Jan. 1, Florida has taken in 104 refugees from Syria, and of those, 26 have been resettled in South Florida.

Alkader says the latest news makes him worried for his own future in the country. He says going back to Syria would ensure his death.

“I feel like my dream is getting destroyed,” he said. “I am very scared that they might send me back. If they try to send me back I’ll probably die of a heart attack before we even leave the country because I know we’d die in Syria.”

He says he loves the sense of security that American life has brought his family, and that his children have freedom that they wouldn’t have had in Syria.

“Now my hope is that my children will learn English, and I hope they become doctors,” Alkader said. “They have the freedoms they need here.”