In Allentown’s Syrian community, scorn and support for Trump’s travel ban

    George Khallouf is Syrian Christian and a Trump supporter. He supports the ban on refugees and traveler's from seven Middle-Eastern countries.  (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

    George Khallouf is Syrian Christian and a Trump supporter. He supports the ban on refugees and traveler's from seven Middle-Eastern countries. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

    By now you’ve probably heard the Assali family’s story — or one like it.

    On Saturday, six of their family members were sent packing by immigration officials at Philadelphia International Airport, following President Donald Trump’s executive order to stop arrivals from seven Middle-Eastern countries. 

    The Assalis are a part of the Lehigh Valley’s large and historic Syrian Christian population, which in recent years has helped welcome Syrian Muslims fleeing civil war.

    And while many have used U.S. immigration channels to bring family to the United States, this community of Syrians and those helping Syrian refugees are divided on Trump’s new policy.

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    ‘Maybe we wanted Trump, at first, to be our president.’

    Sarmad Assali has lived in Allentown for more than 30 years, and during that time her family tree spread deep roots in the Lehigh Valley.

    “My family alone, we are 56 people! We all live in this neighborhood,” she said, gesturing out the the window at a subdivision of tasteful brick houses. They planned to have a big lunch to welcome her husband Ghassam’s brothers, who spent more than 10 years seeking entry to the United States. Instead, extended family members sat on couches in the living room, waiting to speak with immigration attorneys.

    About 24 hours prior, Ghassam’s two brothers, their wives, and their teenage children arrived in the U.S. carrying hard-won visas, only to be turned around and sent back to the Middle East a couple of hours later.

    “My mind is just blabbering. I can’t concentrate. I don’t know how many people I’ve talked to,” said Assali, as she took a breather before heading to Philadelphia to meet with Gov. Tom Wolf, more attorneys and the press.

    Though weary, her voice rises when asked what she thinks of Trump’s executive order.

    “Maybe we wanted Trump, at first, to be our president. Because he wanted out of all other countries. Why are we sending our soldiers? We wanted to put our money in America,” said Assali.

    Instead, in the first week of his presidency, Trump signed an executive order that puts a 120-day halt to refugees resettlement in the United States and bans visitors from seven Middle Eastern country for 90 days. Only Syria has an indefinite ban on travelers, stranding Assali’s family.

    “As Christians and humans, as humans, it’s our right to help others,” she said. Her husband is a dentist, and the family has invested thousands of dollars towards visas for his brothers’ families.

    A community reacts

    After Sunday morning services, St. George’s Orthodox Church held a charity luncheon to raise funds for mission work in Mexico.

    Sitting in the basement hall of the onion-domed Syrian church, George Khallouf said he sees no problem with keeping out legal U.S. residents and visa-holders, like the Assali’s family.

    “This is American policy. Stop, that mean stop, it doesn’t matter if my own brother, Christian, Jew, or Muslim,” Khallouf said.

    As he explains his stance, families at nearby tables eat eat soupy spaghetti and garlic bread.

    “This is America, this is the great country in the world … we should support this country and support our government and support our president,” he said.

    Khallouf, who is a retired civil servant and teacher, heads up the church’s program to welcome new Syrian refugees. He sees no contradiction between that role and his loyalty to Trump.

    “I support Donald Trump completely. Me and my family. And I pray for him,” he said.

    Khallouf, like some other church elders, shared concerns about the vetting process for Syrian refugees — namely that it’s not strict enough, as one reason he supports the policy. But across the Lehigh Valley there seem to be as many opinions as there are Syrians.

    Standing in the church’s industrial kitchen, Nasser Sabbagh is much more critical, in particular of who the ban affects.

    “I think it’s crazy,” he said. “We thought that Saudi Arabia should be on the list … These are the countries, especially Syria and Iraq, [the U.S. has] been destroying since day one.”

    The executive order contains language to give priority to religious minorities one the refugee process resumes, which has potential to help Syrian Christians. But the majority of refugees leaving that country are from the Sunni Muslim majority.

    Over at the Muslim Association of the Lehigh Valley, a large mosque, Sherrine Eid helps lead a conversation with a group of teenagers who will compete in the annual Muslim Inter-Scholastic Tournament.

    She said some at the mosque have been told by their lawyers to sit tight while the executive orders are sorted out.

    “There are enough people that have been advised legally not to travel if they are green card holders, or if they have dual nationalities,” she said. “They’re been told don’t leave because we don’t know that you can return.” On Sunday, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly issued a statement exempting green card holders from the ban.

    President Trump also issued a statement emphasizing that the measures are temporary. “We will again be issuing visas to all countries once we are sure we have reviewed and implemented the most secure policies over the next 90 days,” the statement read.

    As for concerns about vetting, Eid said she has firsthand knowledge of just how tough it is.

    “I’ve worked as the refugee coordinator for the Muslim Association,” she said. “They go through at least two years of vetting. Multiple, multiple interviews, multiple agents, multiple agencies.” Bethany Christian Services, the nonprofit agency that resettles Syrian refugees in Allentown, corroborated the two-year process.

    Eid, who wears a fluorescent purple and green tie-dye hijab, was born in the U.S. and will not be affected by the ban. But, it will keep families she’s helped from being reunited — and possibly make them more dependent on state aid as a result, she said.

    “There’s a widow and triplets that just arrived and I know we were hoping her brother would be able to help her,” she said. “That’s not going to happen.”

    Back at St. George’s, the Assali’s story has one man contemplating his family’s fate. He’s not Syrian, but his wife is, and he doesn’t want his name used because he’s afraid it will hurt her family’s shot at getting a visa.

    “Since 2004, 2005, we have applications for her two brothers to come over here. And we’re still waiting. That’s exactly what happened to those people,” he said.”They did everything legal by the book. They should be allowed to come in.”

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