A 'lucky' St. Louis refugee fears others like him now have nowhere to go
Alaa Alderie sought refuge in the United States several years ago, not long after Syrian authorities started looking for him because of his involvement in political demonstrations against President Bashar Al-Assad.
In 2012, he and his parents came to St. Louis, where his brother had arrived earlier, finding success in their new home. Alderie, who is Muslim, considers himself a “lucky refugee.”
But because President Donald Trump has banned refugees from six Muslim-majority countries, Alderie worries that people fleeing similar circumstances now won’t be allowed to a similar opportunity to seek political asylum.
Trump’s executive order bars travelers and refugees from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
“That's so sad,” Alderie said. “When you feel like you are targeted in your own country and you cannot go anywhere else outside your country.”
When the Trump administration announced the travel ban in January, there was mass chaos at U.S. airports. Immigration lawyers and advocates from around the country rallied to support refugees.
The administration’s revised policy blocks people from the six countries who cannot prove a bona fide relationship with a U.S. citizen or entity. Qualifying family members include spouses, parents, siblings, children and — because of a court challenge — grandparents. The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed the administration to strictly enforce the ban pending a review by a federal appeals court; the high court’s justices are expected to rule on it in October.
While the issue works its way through the courts, Alderie, a permanent U.S. resident, fears for the safety of his family still in Syria — including his older brother.
“I would do whatever it takes to get at least my brother and the other members of my family but it seems like something impossible,” he said. “I tried everything. I even wrote to the White House one day and I'm trying but it seems like there is no hope.”
Since the ban was announced, local refugees have sought legal advice from immigration lawyers about how it would affect their families.
James Hacking III, a St. Louis immigration lawyer, said he thinks Trump’s executive order should be struck down because it discriminates against Muslims.
“The president has, through his statements, made clear that he's banning people based on religion without any kind of individualized analysis of this person and whether or not their relationship with their family member is good and whether they are good people who deserve to come to the United States,” he said.
‘Die or wait to die’
Alderie, 34, wants to see more refugees allowed to enter the United States in part because he has lived through Syria’s disintegration. In Damascus, where he was a banker, Alderie’s day-to-day life was fraught with danger.
As the war-torn city crumbled around him, Alderie said, he saw his income cut by 75 percent, saw sporadic electricity outages and low water supplies.
“Life in the country has reached a point where everything is just dark. You feel the war and you hear the sounds (of the bombs) and then someone close to you dies,” he said. “The situation is very sad. Every two days you say goodbye to a friend or you hear of somebody who died. The war is ugly.
“The options now for Syrians are they either die or wait to die, one of the two. And the situation is really depressing for any Syrian.”
Since the travel ban has been in place, refugee resettlement in St. Louis has slowed.
In the year that ended in September, 1,260 refugees settled in St. Louis, according to International Institute of St. Louis. Since then, 662 refugees arrived, but half had settled in the city before January, when the ban took effect.
The International Institute had planned to hire someone to assist refugees, but that plan is now on hold.
That disappoints Washington University law student Shadi Alkhazaaleh, who applied for the job. Alkhazaaleh is from the northern part of Jordan near the Syrian border, where that country’s civil war began in 2011. He empathizes with many fleeing their homelands.
“I know just from hearing the bombing and all the stuff I felt really horrible. Imagine the people living there, so just making them feel comfortable is something really important,” Alkhazaaleh said.
Bringing life to the city
Alderie said he thinks it’s a shame that fewer refugees are arriving in St. Louis. He and his family own Cham Bakery — the city’s first pita bread distributor. He said immigrants often bring life to the community and fill gaps in the market.
“We pay our taxes; we do our duties like any other American,” Alderie said. “At the end of the year, we pay for the schools, public roads and other things. We help the city that took us in and hopefully in the future we will keep helping.”
Follow Lara on Twitter: @Hamdanlf