Syrian refugees find suspicion, hope in Allentown

     Worshippers gather at the Muslim Association of Lehigh Valley in Whitehall, Pennsylvania.  Allentown has one of the largest Syrian populations in the U.S., and Syrian refugees are expected to resettle in the region.  (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

    Worshippers gather at the Muslim Association of Lehigh Valley in Whitehall, Pennsylvania. Allentown has one of the largest Syrian populations in the U.S., and Syrian refugees are expected to resettle in the region. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

    The Lehigh Valley has one of the oldest and largest Syrian communities in the United States, making it an attractive place for refugees fleeing that country’s civil war to resettle.

    The first few families began trickling in this summer. Not only do they have to adjust to a whole new culture, but distrust among Syrians — stoked by violence back home — has followed them to Allentown.

    A young Syrian man recently sat behind a frosted glass screen, speaking through an interpreter with a reporter from Allentown’s The Morning Call. He doesn’t want to show his face or give his name because he’s afraid something could happen to family back in Syria.

    “Because of the war and the bad situation in Syria, [we] decided to leave Syria looking for a better life for ourself and our children,” he said.

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    The interview, posted online and touting Allentown as a haven for refugees, drew negative comments. Syrian refugees, already wary of the press, have put their heads down and would not grant a formal interview for this story.

    “It was predominantly fear-based. It’s like, ‘Terrorists! We’re bringing in terrorists’,” said Janet Panning, program director with Lutheran Children and Family Services, which resettles refugees in Allentown. Many people underestimate just how thorough the background checks for refugees are, she said. They include investigations of extended family members and can stretch out the vetting process over several years.

    That means the people now clinging to dinghies in the Mediterranean, if they apply for refugee status, won’t be arriving in the U.S. any time soon.

    “The people who are fleeing now to Europe are at the back of the line for U.S. processing,” said Panning.

    This year, 39 Syrian refugees arrived in Allentown. When the tiny percentage of people fleeing make it to American soil, the trial of creating a whole new life in a strange place begins.

    In addition to online comments, these newcomers also have to deal with suspicion from other Syrians.

    allentown syrians 01Developer and Syrian immigrant Albert Abdouche is renovating the Americus Hotel in Center City, Allentown. He has been hiring Syrian refugees to help with the restoration. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

    From the Christian Valley

    Allentown’s Syrian community has deep roots. St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church was founded in 1916 by Syrian families, some of whom trace their roots in the U.S. back to the late 1800s.

    “We have 53 villages, they call them the Christian Valley in Syria,” said Albert Abdouche, a voluble real estate developer who emigrated from that valley to Allentown 38 years ago.

    Wearing a red Lacoste polo shirt and glasses, Abdouche is natural self-promoter and wasted no time showing off one of his projects, the historic Americus Hotel in Allentown, with it chandeliers and ballroom.

    Recently, he hired a couple of Syrian refugees to do construction work in the hotel. One in particular, said Abdouche, is “a good worker.”

    Still, he said he has some misgivings about the newest Syrian arrivals.

    “If those people are going to come here and make us problems, we don’t want them,” he said. “But, if they want to come and live the way we live … our community will open arms to them. Even if they’re Muslims or Jews.”

    Abdouche takes obvious pride in his community, and worries that the newly arrived Syrians could, in some way, change it. Members of the the main Syrian cultural organization, what Abdouche called “the club,” declined to be interviewed for this story, as did the leader of the church.

    ‘We have to help each other’

    The civil war in Syria splits the country along religious lines, so talking politics is deeply person.

    The Muslim Association of the Lehigh Valley and its volunteer refugee coordinator, Sherrine Eid, have nonetheless started hosting interfaith meetings, convening the heads of area religious organizations about the humanitarian crisis in Syria. The mosque also works with newly arrived refugees in Allentown.

    “If I hear of a family that’s arrived, we make sure that we make connections with people on the ground,” said Eid, who was born in Allentown and is second generation Egyptian.

    allentown syrians 03Sherrine Eid, refugee assistance coordinator for the Muslim Association of Lehigh Valley, helps to settle newcomers to the region.  So far, 39 Syrian refugees have resettled in Allentown this year. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

    Getting everyone in one room means politics does come up. At the last interfaith meeting, she said, the leader of the St. George Orthodox Church pledged his support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

    “At the same meeting, we had another Syrian who happened to be a Sunni Muslim,” said Eid. “He said under the father [Hafez al-] Assad … there were abuses and it’s hard to be a Sunni Muslim in Syria.”

    Longtime Syrians in Allentown tend support Assad, because he favored the Christian minority in Syria. Refugees tend to be Muslim, and the single largest religious group in Syria are Sunni.

    Still, Eid said, that conversation ended on a productive note and the group was able to come the same conclusion. 

    “It doesn’t really matter what these politics are,” she said. “the fact of the matter is we have people fleeing for their lives, with their families, and we happen to be one of those destinations that people are fleeing to.”

    And even though he has misgivings, Albert Abdouche agrees. Once in the U.S., he said, Syrians should stick together.

    “Any community, German community, Spanish … help each other. And we have to help each other.”

    He asked one of his new hires, Japour Ibrahim, to talk with us. Ibrahim answers quickly, in monosyllables, with Abdouche translating.

    Only one thing gets a full sentence. “He says he thinks the buildings are going to be higher” in America, said Abdouche.

    Next year, the Obama administration has promised the U.S. will accept 10,000 Syrian refugees, more than five times the number accepted since the civil war began. Some will land in Allentown.

    allentown syrians 02a bJapour Ibrahim, a Syrian refugee, works to restore one of the rooms of the Americus Hotel.  Ibrahim said he came to Allentown with his family in April. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

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