More than a year since protests against the Assad regime began, a humanitarian crisis continues to grow in Syria. For those lucky enough to find their way out, there’s the chance of starting a new life in places where older generations of Syrian-Americans reside. One of those locales is Southern California.
Bassam agreed to meet at a Moroccan-inspired café in Silverlake, not too far from where he now lives in Los Angeles.
Bassam is not his real name; he has asked that we not mention where he is originally from. He didn't want to give away many details about his life back in Syria, nor how he has been getting by since arriving in the U.S.
As someone whose family still lives under the brutal Bashar al-Assad regime, Bassam is afraid of the possible repercussions of giving away his identity.
But despite his fears, Bassam is quick to smile; he is young, idealistic and eager to share some of his story. The toughest part, he acknowledged, was saying goodbye to his parents.
“Sometimes they wanted me to stay home. But on the other hand, they also wanted me to participate [in the protests]," he said. "Because if everybody said, 'don’t go out, don’t stand for those people,' nobody would leave their home. So everybody has to do his part, at the very least.”
Bassam said his part consisted of going out to protest every day, rushing wounded protesters to a doctor who wouldn’t turn them in to government forces and reaching out to the world — via Twitter, Facebook, phone, anything he could.
He left Syria because he had been receiving threats. After avoiding military service for years, government forces finally came looking for him.
“If you are a soldier and they order you to kill one of the protesters, you either kill or be killed," said Bassam. "And I don’t want to have to make either of those choices.”
A couple of years ago, Bassam had received a U.S. tourist visa. When faced with the prospect of leaving, he decided to put it to use. Listening to the radio and reading books had taught him (some) English.
Once here, Bassam was fortunately able to tap into a well-established Syrian-American community — one that has opposed the Assad regime for years.
“There are a number of Syrians who are unknown to the Syrian communities here," said Reem Salahi, a civil rights attorney. "They just don’t know how to access that. And they’re afraid that if they are caught, they would be detained and potentially shipped back to Syria, which would basically ensure that they would be killed.”
As a growing number of young Syrians have arrived here, many have opted to apply for asylum. According to the local U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office, the last year-and-a-half saw a fourfold jump in applications over the 2010 fiscal year.
Out of 67 cases received in L.A. since October of last year, 24 were granted asylum. The rest are awaiting interviews and more paperwork.
“We are affected one way or another," said Saleh Kholaki, a Syrian man who moved to L.A. in 1983 with his immediate family. "Whether we have a relative killed or detained or tortured or in the surrounding countries as refugees. For those who can now come from Syria to seek refuge in the U.S., they are fortunate enough to come.”
Syrians who came as of March 29, 2012 may be especially fortunate as the U.S. government has granted them what’s known as Temporary Protected Status. TPS applies to migrants from countries that are deemed unstable.
The status can be extended for as long as the instability continues, and it allows people to work in the U.S. for a limited amount of time.
An estimated 2,500 to 3,000 Syrians may be eligible for TPS nationwide.
One way or another, Bassam hopes he will be allowed to stay. He said he had no idea if he would be able to land in the U.S. when he was heading to the airport, but now he’s convinced coming here was his fate.
“I planned for it like 10 days before," he said, recalling the decision. "I didn’t think they were going to kill us. So I was planning to go out, but not to the U.S. That’s where destiny brought me.”
His next steps will be to get his immigration status straightened so he can get a job and, hopefully, even get re-certified to do the work he did back at home — when there were jobs. When asked to dream up an ideal ending to his story, he said he would like to find a way to bring his parents and siblings to California.
Even if Assad is toppled soon, it will take his country many more years to be a stable place again.