Syrian refugee family questions calls for ban

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SALT LAKE CITY — Mowyaih Bilal still bears the scars.

They are on his wrists, where Syrian soldiers cuffed him with plastic ties for months; and on his calf, where they whipped him with a pistol; and all over his body, where they stamped out cigarettes and cut him.

They did this because he was Sunni.

When Bilal was finally released, his wife, Kholoud Abou Arida, told him to run.

Said his wife: "When we hear that we will go to America, we feel like we're going to freedom."

The Bilals are one of two Syrian refugee families who were resettled in Utah. After fleeing to Lebanon and registering his family as refugees with the United Nations, Bilal and his family are now safe. But with more than half the nation's governors threatening to block the arrival of more, they questioned what would happen to the more than 4 million Syrian refugees currently displaced around the world.

On Tuesday, Gov. Gary Herbert said he and other governors were calling on the federal government, which handles the vetting process for refugees, to "make sure we all feel comfortable or stop the refugee program altogether until we all feel comfortable."

In light of the attacks in Paris, President Obama and Congress need "to make sure we don't have refugees that are maybe terrorists in disguise trying to get into our country," Herbert said.

On Monday, he directed the Utah Department of Public Safety to "immediately reevaluate" the federal security protocols for vetting refugees. He didn't rule out banning future Syrian refugees but noted that none are expected to arrive in Utah until March or April at the earliest.

"So we have time to analyze and review what's taking place and make appropriate decisions and adjustments as are necessary," Herbert said.

On KSL Newsradio's "The Doug Wright Show," he added that he expected to have some recommendations by next week.

On Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republican congressional leaders also called on the Obama administration to pause plans to resettle 10,000 more Syrian refugees next year, questioning whether federal protocols are rigorous enough to screen out potential terrorists.

Gerald Brown, the refugee director of the Utah Department of Workforce Services, said they are.

"We can have confidence in it," said Brown, speaking on KSL Newsradio's "The Doug Wright Show. "It is extremely elaborate; it's extremely careful. I was part of it at one time, and I can tell you they take it very seriously, especially after 9/11."

Brown explained that the clearance process for most Syrian refugees takes at least two years, making refugees some of the most heavily vetted people allowed in the U.S.

"These people are a tremendous asset," he continued. "I mean, they've survived horrors 20 times what you and I can imagine. And they're survivors. They are the epitome of human resilience. We're lucky to have them."

For the Bilal family, the vetting process took a little under a year. They don't know why they were picked out of the many Syrian families awaiting a new home, or why their security clearance took less time than most. But they are grateful.

Since 2012, the U.S. has admitted 1,854 Syrian refugees. Utah is preparing to take in 100-150 more next year.

Claudio Holzner, an associate professor of political science at the University of Utah, said the chaotic migration of refugees across Europe can't be compared to the U.S. refugee program.

European countries are "processing hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of weeks, whereas the United States is proposing to vet 10,000 immigrants in a year," Holzner said. "So the process can be much more rigorous and organized and predictable."

Holzner pointed out that most of the suspects identified so far in the Paris terrorist attacks have not been Syrian refugees but French or Belgian nationals.

"There are thousands of Belgian and French tourists that come to Utah every year," Holzner said. "By that logic … then we should also exclude tourists from Europe. It's just a slippery slope that is really problematic."

The outcry about Syrian refugees confuses the Bilals, who insist, repeatedly and angrily, that the fighters who call themselves the Islamic State are "not Muslims."

Abou Arida looks up a word on her phone: "Terrorism."

Her eldest daughter, 15-year-old Nour Bilal, exclaims that fighters for the Islamic State hail from countries around the world.

"They said ISIS do that," she said, referring to the attacks in Paris. "So why they say Syria? We don't know where ISIS is from. ISIS killed the Syrian people too."

The family will celebrate their one-year anniversary in the U.S. in a little under a week. Although their life in Salt Lake has been mostly happy, they still worry about their relatives back in Syria. Nour Bilal's uncle, who was jailed three months ago, has not been heard from since.

Nour Bilal's father still suffers from the injuries inflicted by the soldiers. Against the recommendation of his doctor, he works two jobs — one at a restaurant and one as a hotel cleaner. Her mother also insisted on working, even though the resettlement agency suggested she take it easy, at least at first.

Each month, they pay some of their earnings toward a $5,000 bill for their resettlement, as refugees must repay their transportation costs.

But the Bilals are free — free from the bombs that used to fall every day, free from gunfire, free from persecution.

"America is now my country," said Nour Bilal, who wants to become a doctor. "All my future is in America."

Contributing: Nkoyo Iyamba - - - - - -

Daphne Chen is a reporter for the Deseret News and Contact her at


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