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Richard D.
Democrat IL

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  • Syrian Refugees

    by Senator Richard J. Durbin

    Posted on 2015-12-17

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    DURBIN. Mr. President, it is amazing some of the people we get to meet in our lives as Senators. There is a medical doctor in Chicago who I didn't know several years ago, but he and his wife have become dear friends in a short period of time. His name is Dr. Zaher Sahloul. He asked for an appointment in my office in Chicago a few years back, and I agreed to it. He came in to tell me a story and to show me some pictures. He is originally from Syria, and he is head of the Syrian- American Medical Society in the Chicagoland area. Because of the tragedy of the civil war in his home country of Syria, he has felt a special obligation to help.

    What he has done on many occasions now was to get as close to the action as he could in Syria to provide medical assistance to the victims. Many times he risked his life to do it. And other doctors-- some Syrian-American and some not--have joined him in that effort. He would bring me back photographs of what casualties of war look like in Syria. They were heartbreaking--pictures of children who had been maimed and seriously injured by the barrel bombs of President Assad in Syria and stories about parents killed in the bombings that continue day after weary day.

    Dr. Sahloul would ask me: What can you do, Senator? Can't you help us? Can't you stop this? Of course, that civil war in Syria, which has gone on for 4 years, is almost intractable, almost impossible to define. There are so many forces fighting one another that at any given moment, your ally today may be your enemy tomorrow.

    I tried, since meeting Dr. Sahloul, to do some things: to come out for a safe [[Page S8736]] zone, a humanitarian zone in Syria, where medical treatment and food and a safe shelter could be found for families who are facing these attacks. We have had some limited--and I underline ``limited''--success in providing these safe zones, but it is a fact that the tragedy of Syria continues even to this minute. If anything, today it is worse because of the bombing by the Russians, which I am told has gone into areas that previously had been protected because of the citizen and civilian populations.

    The result is obvious. Millions--literally millions of people in Syria over the last 4 years--have fled. They are running for their lives, and they are running from war, and they are running from terrorism.

    Dr. Sahloul recently wrote an article about his trip to the United States. He arrived in 1989. He tells the story of coming to Chicago and feeling very much alone. He graduated from medical school in Damascus. He had a chance to practice medicine in Chicago, but he wasn't sure that he could ever really fit in.

    He tells the story of his first Thanksgiving in Chicago in 1989, when a fellow doctor invited him to join her and her family for Thanksgiving dinner. It was a gracious gesture--a gesture of hospitality. Dr. Sahloul has not forgotten it to this day. This article, which I will ask to have printed in the Record at the conclusion of my comments, goes into some detail.

    Dr. Sahloul really wrote this article not to just tell his story but to tell two other stories--the story of immigration, which is literally the story of America, and the story of Syrian refugees.

    His most recent trip to the region was to the island of Lesbos, which is part of Greece. I went there a few weeks ago with several of my Senate colleagues. Thousands--hundreds of thousands of refugees--are flowing into Lesbos from Turkey. They have left Syria and Afghanistan, and they are working their way into Greece on their way, they hope, to refuge and shelter in Europe.

    It is impossible to describe, if we have not seen it ourselves, what is going on here. But imagine for a moment that you were so frightened of the prospect of your child or your wife dying in war that you said: Tomorrow, pick up whatever you can carry. We are leaving. We cannot stay here.

    And if you look at these refugees as they travel--mothers and fathers carrying babies, with toddlers and small children walking alongside of them--you realize how desperate they must be to leave everything behind and to head out on this journey of danger. One of the most dangerous parts of it is that trip across the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece. They have to pay smugglers 1,000 euros, which is over $1,000 for each adult, and 500 euros for each child. They put them in these plastic boats. Some of them are given lifejackets. The infants, too small for a lifejacket, are literally given plastic water wings that we give to our infant children to play in the wading pools near our homes. That is all they have. They cram them into these boats. They strap on a Chinese motor. They put just enough gasoline in that engine that they think will make it across--but not more--and try to find someone in the boat who will steer it. They point to their destination, and they leave. Sometimes these boats have 50 or 60 people in them when they are only supposed to have 20 to travel safely.

    They are warned that as they come up to the shore in Lesbos, Greece, or other islands, they should immediately run into the rocks and scuttle the boat so that it sinks. Otherwise, they are told they will be turned around and pushed back to Turkey, and they may not have enough gas to make it. And that is what happens.

    Dr. Sahloul tells the story of what happens when these boats are scuttled as they arrive in Greece. He tells of the drowning of little children who don't make it off the boat onto dry land but literally drown right there. We saw one of those photos just a few months ago of a tiny 3-year-old boy who drowned just as he was about to make it into Greece.

    Dr. Sahloul tells that story so that some of us--all of us--will understand the desperation of these refugees.

    It is now very popular among politicians to blame the Syrian refugees for terrorism in America. We have not accepted that many refugees in our country. The numbers are about 2,000. At this point, not a single person among those refugees has been arrested and charged with terrorism. Yet one would think that these Syrian refugees are the greatest threat there is to America.

    I will include the article I referred to in the Record so that those who follow this debate and follow the proceedings on the floor can read firsthand and for themselves Dr. Sahloul's story and the story of these Syrian refugees. I ask unanimous consent that the article be printed in the Record.

    There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows: [From Lobelog, Dec. 14, 2015] Today's Syrian Refugees Are Yesterday's Irish (By Zaher Sahloul) Immigrants have built the United States--and that includes Syrians.

    Four months after I arrived to Chicago in 1989, my colleague at the hospital, Dr. Nancy Nora, invited me to her family's Thanksgiving dinner. I was homesick in a new country after graduating from medical school in Damascus. Nancy Nora was an Irish American from a large Catholic family. Her father was a respected local physician.

    Nancy told me that it was a tradition in her family to invite a newcomer to the city. After all, Thanksgiving, I learned, celebrated Native Americans welcoming European refugees who fled their homelands due to religious and political persecution. I came to Chicago from the ancient Syrian city of Homs to pursue advanced medical training. Syrians look to the U.S. as the best place to pursue this training. In fact, almost half of one percent of American doctors are of Syrian origin. There are also famous Syrian actors, playwrights, rappers, chess players, entrepreneurs, scientists, businessmen, and even Republican governors. Every Syrian American is proud that Steve Jobs is the son of a Syrian immigrant. Syrian immigrant Ernest Hamwi invented the ice cream cone during the St. Louis World Fair in 1904.

    ``Everyone who enjoys ice cream and an iPhone should feel indebted to Syrian immigrants,'' I remind my children. All three have been born in Chicago. The eldest, Adham, ran his first marathon this year--to raise awareness about domestic violence--and aspires to a career in politics. Mahdi is involved in his university's Students Organizing for Syria (SOS) chapter as well as the Black Lives Matter campaign. Marwa, a high school freshman, is a budding pianist and ran for her school's cross-country team. They all volunteer in local charity events and for Syria. My wife, Suzanne, the daughter of a Syrian civil engineer and Canadian mother with Irish-Scottish roots, founded the Syrian Community Network (SCN) to help support newly resettled Syrian refugee families in the Chicago area.

    Darkness in Syria To many Syrians, America symbolizes the values that we lack at home: freedom, rule of law, and the respect for human rights. In Syria, my generation knew only one president, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled for 30 years with ``iron and fire,'' as they say in Arabic. He detained and tortured thousands of people who dared to speak out against his rule. He committed massacres, the worst of which in the city of Hama the same year I graduated from high school.

    I still remember the atmosphere of fear in Syria. We dared not speak. We were told that the ``walls have ears.'' My family even prevented me from going to the mosque to pray. Many of my high school friends and relatives disappeared into the dark cells of the infamous Palmyra prison, the site of another infamous massacre by Assad's ruthless security men.

    When Hafez died in 2000, his son Bashar, a classmate of mine from medical school, was appointed to the presidency by a token parliament. People expected change. After all, Syria had a well-educated middle class, a diverse economy, and a reasonably vibrant nonprofit sector. It also had a tradition of democracy, which had its ups and downs between 1920 and 1970. Bashar, inexperienced but equally ruthless, disappointed us all. When hundreds of thousands of young Syrians demonstrated peacefully in 2011, thinking naively that the Arab Spring had turned at last to Syria, Assad and his cronies responded with what they knew best: brutality and oppression. More than 250,000 people have been killed. Tens of thousands have disappeared into the prisons. Half of the population has been displaced. And barrel bombs, cluster bombs, and all kinds of weaponry have leveled entire cities and neighborhoods.

    Besides meager humanitarian assistance and empty rhetoric, the international community has stood by mostly idle, watching darkness descend on Syria. It has become one of the worst humanitarian crises in our lifetime. In the ensuing chaos, extremist groups like the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and Hezbollah filled the vacuum. But the snowballing refugee crisis only captured the world's attention when it reached the shores of Europe. With the drowning of the Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi, who tried to flee with [[Page S8737]] his family to Greece from Turkey across the Aegean Sea, suddenly Syrian lives mattered.

    With the Refugees I just returned from my last medical mission with my organization, the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), to the Greek island of Lesbos. Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees are making the desperate boat trip from Turkey to Lesbos and other Greek islands. The unfortunate ones are drowning, while the lucky ones must carry on through another 1,200 miles of borders, humiliation, and misery to reach whoever opens the door to them. Germany and Sweden have been the most hospitable, while others are building walls and barbed wire fences along their borders. The Syrian refugees I met were fleeing the recent Russian bombings and Assad's barrel bombs, while some are fleeing the brutality of the Islamic State. I saw several women, some with toddlers Aylan's age, who lost their husbands to the war. One woman was crying as she described a public execution by IS that she was forced to witness with her five-year-old son. He has had nightmares since then.

    I heard from a Syrian volunteer doctor about a boat with a capacity of 30 people that was stuffed with more than 80 refugees. Each refugee had to pay the smugglers 1,000 to 2,000 euros. It was a cold night when the boat crashed onto the rocky shores and split in half. Children got stuck underneath the boat. Many simply drowned. The Syrian doctor, himself a victim of Assad's torture and now a refugee in France, described to me how he performed CPR on two small children. One was dead, and one died later. The U.S. presidential candidates and governors who slammed the door in the faces of helpless Syrian refugees should hear these stories. These refugees deserve our sympathy and hospitality.

    Since 1975, Americans have welcomed over 3 million refugees from all over the world. Refugees have built new lives, homes, and communities in towns and cities in all 50 states. Since the war began, however, only 2,034 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the entire United States. This is a shameful number, considering that there are 4.2 million Syrian refugees. The House of Representatives has passed a bill that would impose additional security measures on refugees from Syria, making it nearly impossible to accept more refugees from Iraq and Syria. A similar bill is awaiting a Senate vote.

    Nancy Nora's father, surrounded by his large extended family at the dinner table on that Thanksgiving many years ago, explained to me how Irish Americans were demonized when they first arrived to the United States as refugees. They were maligned by politicians and by the public, and were perceived as a threat. During dark times in our history, the United States has treated newly arriving Jews, Italians, Japanese, and Latinos as a threat.

    As I was leaving the Nora household after that memorable evening, her family wished me good luck with my studies and my new life in America. Suddenly, the cold Chicago night felt very warm. I felt at home.

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