came to the U.S. and what it will take to stay here. (Courtesy photo)

The arduous road to asylum

Both fled violent, war-torn Syria — one after being blacklisted from President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the other because of threats from Islamic jihadists.

One is a 23-year-old man from Damascus, who studied marketing and came to San Francisco in January; the other is a 30-year-old woman living in The City, who is also from Damascus and has been in the United States since 2015.

Both came to the U.S. seeking asylum.

Now, the destinies of people like them, those seeking protection in the U.S., have been jeopardized by President Donald Trump’s continued efforts to limit entry of mostly Muslim people from a half-dozen Middle Eastern countries, including Syria.

If they came to the U.S. today, it’s unclear whether Amer and Lola (who have requested varied forms of anonymity) would be allowed into the country. At the very least, both would have been denied the tourist visas that allowed them to escape death, torture or both.

While Trump’s initial travel ban was halted by the courts, the administration continues its efforts to ban people from some Middle Eastern countries. A new, modified executive order, signed by Trump on March 6, prohibits individuals from six countries if they lack valid U.S. visas — casting doubt over who will be allowed to enter the country once again.

The president claims he is protecting the country from terrorism.

Crowds of people gather outside the customs screening area at San Francisco International Airport on Jan. 29 during a protest of President Donald Trump’s executive order that banned immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries to the United States — an order that was updated and replaced March 6. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
Crowds of people gather outside the customs screening area at San Francisco International Airport on Jan. 29 during a protest of President Donald Trump’s executive order that banned immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries to the United States — an order that was updated and replaced March 6. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

“The U.S. Government must ensure that those entering this country will not harm the American people after entering, and that they do not bear malicious intent toward the United States and its people,” reads the revised executive order. “… This Executive Order ensures that we have a functional immigration system that safeguards our national security.”

But Francisco Ugarte, a San Francisco deputy public defender and immigration attorney, said the ban is antithetical to American ideals and international treaties.

“We are a country that is welcoming. There are laws in place that permit people to seek refuge,” Ugarte said. “It’s a healthy, wonderful rule that we have as a nation to accept those fleeing persecution and violence.”

After World War II, the U.S. and other countries signed agreements guaranteeing that refugees would be given safe harbor, which was not the case before the war. The treaties were meant to give those fleeing violence and persecution a right to petition signatory nations for refuge. Since then, accepting refugees has been a sign of civilized nations of the west.

“If we don’t accept a very limited number of refugees, we will contribute to the very same violence that we say we are opposed to,” Ugarte said.

Here are the stories of two Syrians refugees who, if they came to the Bay Area today, may have been turned away.

Lola is a Syrian who fled her country in September 2015. She now lives in San Francisco. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
Lola is a Syrian who fled her country in September 2015. She now lives in San Francisco. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Lola, 30

The threats first came as moderate warnings. In March 2012, Lola’s retired father was approached on his way back from a market in their Damascus suburb.

“Two men stopped him and told him he was no longer welcome in this neighborhood,” Lola said.

The following threats came in the form of two hollering women, who told Lola and her sister their clothes made them look like prostitutes. Then, someone threw a rock through the window of Lola’s father’s car. Around it was wrapped a message: “We will reach you, by God’s will.” As fairly secular Alawites, a minority sect of Muslims, they were seen as apostate by the militant Islamists fighting the regime.

From as early as 2011 onward, the situation in Lola’s hometown of Damascus, where she’d always felt at ease among her Christian, Sunni and Druze friends, had increasingly worsened.

The protests against the oppressive regime had broken into open rebellion, and the Islamic al-Nusra front was fighting with the government 15 minutes from Lola’s home. The highway to Damascus was often closed due to fighting. Kidnappings were happening on the local roads. The fighting grew closer. Her mother, youngest sister and father took to sleeping beside one another in the living room.

“They were fighting with the regime. They were fighting with other minorities,” recalled Lola, who slept poorly most nights as gunfire and explosions echoed through the neighborhood.

The family finally decided to leave after a Sunni neighbor was told at mosque that the family was no longer welcome.

Lola and her sister, in a full hijab, were sent on a public bus on a three-hour journey to the port city of Tartus, where her parents had come from and where the Alawite outnumber Sunnis. On the journey, they passed the war-ravaged countryside.

“Burning places, you would see buildings that went down,” she said. “Obviously, there was bombing in that area.”

For a year, their life returned to normal in Tartus, even though Lola felt out of place.

“I didn’t belong there,” Lola said of the conservative city where many of the regime’s soldiers were drafted to fight jihadists. “Suddenly, I have to hear people talking badly about the Sunni: ‘Sunni people do this.’ At the beginning, I was trying to defend them: ‘Sunni people are not bad. Sunni people are good.’”

But she stopped defending Sunnis when she saw the repeated funerals of dead soldiers who had returned from the far reaches of Syria; the Alawite wouldn’t listen anyway.

Then, the threatening calls returned in 2014.

“They said, ‘We know where you are, we know your home and we’ll get you,’” said Lola, recalling a phone call her father received. Then, her mother answered their home phone and was told her daughters would be turned into slaves.

“A month after that, they killed my cousin. They were able to get into his house and kill him,” Lola said. Her cousin was married with a 5-year-old daughter. One morning, her cousin’s wife returned home and found his body near a black Islamic flag in the house. “When they arrived, there they saw him killed by knife. [His wife] and daughter saw it.”

Despite being settled, Lola took her chances and booked a flight to San Francisco on a tourist visa. She left in September 2015, feeling excited and sad. She’d only been to two countries outside of Syria, both in the Middle East.

“But at the same time, I’m leaving behind my sister, my mom and dad. It was a conflicting feeling,” she said.

After arriving in her other sister’s house near Sacramento, Lola slept for the first time in years without the sound of fighting. Within a week, she was reminded of all the normal sounds she’d been missing: birds chirping, children at play.

“It was kind of a weird feeling that I am not hearing any noises, everything is quiet,” said Lola, who now lives in The City. “We’d been missing a lot.”

Lola’s parents remain in Syria, but all four of her siblings have left. She keeps in touch with her family and friends, but doesn’t watch the news or ask about what’s happening there, even though things have gotten worse.

“Since I moved here, I stopped hearing any news about Syria,” she said, noting that she simply wants to live a normal life. “The place there for me is a dark place. There’s only death, horrible things.”

In January, Lola had her final asylum interview. She is now waiting for the results. If she is granted asylum, Lola will be granted a green card and after a year, could apply for permanent residency. After five years, asylum seekers can apply for citizenship.

A poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hangs in front of a shop in Damascus in August 2010. (Courtesy photo)
A poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hangs in front of a shop in Damascus in August 2010. (Courtesy photo)

Amer, 23

The cell was cold and dark. He was given no water or food. He did not know why he was being held and could hear screams during the night. At points, Amer cried out of fear and because of his own stupidity.

“No water. No food. No one to talk to,” Amer recalled. “You can’t know if it’s night or day … The night, the night I cried. I was like, ‘Why did I come here?’”

Days earlier, Amer had been safe across the border in Beirut, Lebanon. But he was homesick and wanted to see his grandparents in Damascus, so he decided to briefly return home.

Crossing into Syria went smoothly, and he made it to his grandparents’ home. But his choice to go joyriding with a friend was ill-fated. The two were stopped at a checkpoint in central Damascus and asked for their identifications. Amer’s friend was let go, but Amer’s name was on a list of people suspected of opposing the regime.

“In a matter of seconds, my right side door was opened. I was grabbed by the belt, shackled and put in a … truck,” Amer said. He asked why he had been taken and where they were going but got no response. “You don’t have the right to ask, ‘What did I do? You talk, they hit you. You talk more, they hit you more.”

Sitting beside a soldier, Amer managed to call his grandmother, who called Amer’s father. If Amer was going to make it out of jail, it would be a result of someone his father knew pulling strings.

“If you get lost in this stuff, no one will ever find you. They [the government] will break you, they will kill you,” he said.

In 2011, Amer left Syria with his family. They had initially been excited about the anti-regime protests. But as the violence increased, that excitement turned to fear.

A self-described wealthy kid who attended private school, Amer said he had little interest in politics other than what he was told by his parents: In public, support Assad, but never tell anyone what is said inside the house.

“Then, 2011 came, and the revolution happened,” Amer recalled. “I was 18 and I saw a government, the whole country, built on establishments and companies, going down. It happened step by step,” said Amer. “We didn’t believe it at first.”

Amer’s father even drove into the center of Damascus to watch the protesters. Within minutes, a speeding bus drove into the crowd, and men in plain clothes with sticks began beating the protesters.

“The government used to pay these people. I saw people jumping out of the bus, and they looked like they were from prison,” he remembered.

After this, Amer began going to protests with his friends. They would find out about a demonstration on social media but had to be careful as government spies were often present.

Once the chanting began — “The people want to the government to back down!” — he would join in for about three minutes. Then, the crowd would break before they got arrested. At home, he’d post pictures to prove there was a protest.

The protests reached a peak during the late summer of 2012 during Ramadan, a monthlong holiday of daily fasting after which everyone goes to the mosque.

“We knew Damascus was falling apart,” he said.

On Aug. 27, 2012, Amer and his father went to the Al Rifae mosque, which was surrounded by regime forces.

“They locked us inside the mosque for four hours,” he said. “This was the day that I thought, ‘This is reality.’” They managed to escape, but the sheik was injured along with others.

Soon after, his father closed his business, and the family packed their bags, fleeing to Beirut in a taxi. His father and mother then relocated to Saudi Arabia, and Amer stayed in Lebanon with his brother.

That’s when he decided to go back home for a visit, which landed him in a jail cell. After two days in the cell, he was questioned.

Amer was seated before an officer who wore an undershirt and was watching television in his office. To his side stood a soldier.

“I was like, ‘Sir, I didn’t do anything,’” said Amer. “He didn’t believe me. He’s like, ‘Hit him.’ So the lieutenant next to me slaps me.”

Amer was searched, but his cellphone remained unexamined. “If he knew how to open it and get to the images, he would have known that I am against the president because I have a lot of pictures mocking Bashar Assad,” he said.

Then, the desk phone rang. Someone had called in a favor: Amer was free.

The officer threw Amer’s things back at him. “No one gets out of here. … You are very lucky,” Amer remembered being told as he was warned to leave the country within one day.

When he was released from jail, Amer’s grandparents were waiting outside. That day, he returned, relieved, to Beirut.

He spent the next semester finishing his studies. When his student visa ran out, he went to Saudi Arabia but couldn’t find work there and again lost his visa.

But Amer had a visa to visit the U.S., so he traveled to New York with his brother, where they soon started looking for lawyers and were told obtaining asylum status would take three years. They flew to Los Angeles and were told the same.

But in San Francisco, they found Thipphavone Ark, an attorney who had lived in a Thai refugee camp as a child.

“She said six months and we get our interviews,” Amer said. She was right.

His interview is this month. Politics

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Lola is a Syrian who fled her country in September 2015. She now lives in San Francisco. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

A poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hangs in front of a shop in Damascus in August 2010. (Courtesy photo)

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