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Syrians in US face grave uncertainties as decision looms on their temporary protected status

By Coco McCabe
With widespread destruction following years of war--including in the city of Aleppo--Syria is not the home people once knew. Pablo Tosco

‘What unites us is way more than what divides us,’ says a college senior from Syria who has found a warm welcome in Iowa.

In 2012, as conflict was escalating in Syria, the US government began granting Syrians seeking safety here temporary protected status, or TPS. The designation allows Syrians--and people from other countries granted TPS--to work in the US and apply for immigration benefits.

Four years later, in 2016, the Department of Homeland Security extended the TPS program for Syrians through March 31 of this year, citing the deadly threats they continue to face at home including the chemical weapons used against them, daily bombings, limited access to clean water, and the difficulty in getting food.

Today, nearly 6,000 Syrians in the US are depending on TPS to ensure their security. But now, they are facing grave uncertainty as our government weighs whether or not to extend the program again. Recently, it decided against extensions for Haiti and El Salvador, leaving hundreds of thousands of people from those countries confronting the harsh reality of returning home and giving up all they had strived to build and achieve here.

Will Syrians be next? That’s the question many are now contemplating with dread. Here are some of their stories.

Amr: ‘I love the culture here’

"I love that you guys have the constitution here," says Amr, a Syrian who has been living in the US with a temporary protected status, or TPS.

Amr makes no bones about it: He loves peanut butter--and many other things about the US. Like its constitution. Its rule of law. Its equal opportunities. In fact, he loves this nation so much that he recently invested his life’s savings in a permanent place to live here--a condo in Watertown, Mass.--even though there is no guarantee that he will be able to call it home for long.

Amr, 34, is from Damascus. He’s one of the 6,000-or-so Syrians now waiting to hear if the US government will extend their temporary protected status, or TPS, a designation that has allowed him to shine at work and pursue a master’s degree in technological entrepreneurship at Northeastern University--all while keeping him safe from the conflict raging in his country. A software engineer, he was recently promoted to tech lead manager for Wayfair, an e-commerce company where he puts in in 10-to-12-hour days before heading out to class.

“I have a big hope in this nation,” said Amr. “I think the US is still the hope for the whole world.”

But whether that hope will materialize into permanent security for him is not at all clear. What is certain, at least for now, is that Amr can’t go back to Syria: It’s too dangerous. Meanwhile, his company has grown so keen to keep him that it is now helping him apply for a green card, which would allow him to live here permanently.

Still, for Amr, everything is hanging in the balance--his condo, his job, his future. And the uncertainty is crazy-making.

“Every day, I wake up, I feel like I’m really stressed out,” said Amr. “I have no solution--just running to watch CNN. . . . I know the administration is going to take the decision for TPS end of this month, and I’m really scared for that decision. . . .  If the administration decided not to extend the TPS and for some reason my asylum case got rejected, I will lose everything, basically,” he said.

Yet, despite the current administration’s position toward war-weary Syrians, Amr has found exactly the opposite reception among the country’s people.

“Everyone I meet here in the US, they show empathy about my situation,” said Amr. “I have tons of American friends who love me and want me to stay.”

And that, perhaps, explains his hope: “I always say, there should be a hashtag, #extendthehope, #extendtheTPS.”

Hiking through Yellowstone National Park is one of the quintessential American activities Amr has embraced.

Mouna: ‘I was able to accomplish something--I got my master’s degree’

For Mouna, a 30-year-old single mother from Syria striving to make a new life for herself in the US, everything hangs on the future of her  temporary protected status, or TPS. But most excruciating of all is the fate of her child: If the US government forces Mouna to leave and she returns to conflict-wracked Syria, she could lose custody of her 8-year-old son.

Mouna is not her real name. We have changed it to ensure her security following her divorce from her husband. When he was admitted to a master’s program here for a degree in business, Mouna was obliged to follow him from their home in Syria, abandoning the medical residency she was pursuing--and leaving behind her mother who was battling colon cancer.

Mouna came to the US as a newborn enters the world, she said: “I didn’t know how to speak. . . . I didn’t know anything. My English was very weak.” But her drive was on full throttle, and as her marriage crumbled, she began to look for an exit: She wanted to continue her studies, enter a medical residency program, get a job, contribute to the community.

But being on her husband’s visa, she had no freedom of her own.

“He did not want me to go anywhere, actually. Not to have a degree, not to study, not to work,” said Mouna. “He was taking advantage of the fact that I’m dependent on him.” So, unable to return to a Syria embroiled in war, she applied for TPS--and her world began to open up, even as her day-to-day challenges mounted.

“I went through a lot of tough times,” said Mouna. “I had to be homeless and times where I just couldn’t find money for my son.”

With support from her siblings (two of whom are in Europe and one in the US), Mouna managed to move on and carve out a life for herself and her son. She threw herself into her studies. She got a job as a research assistant. And she pushed herself to learn English.

“I worked so hard. I used to sleep four hours a night--and keep reading all the time,” she said. When the pace caught up with her, Mouna would grab 10-minute catnaps in her car, and then go back to work.

In July, she earned her master’s degree in kinesiology--and along the way she did a little educating of her own. Mouna wears a head scarf, and some of the people she mixed with in the beginning weren’t so sure about it--nor about her because she chose to cover her hair.

“They didn’t like it that much,” said Mouna.”I can tell like they deal with me differently.”

But when people began to see beyond the scarf--when they witnessed her determination and recognized who she was--her clothing no longer mattered.

“Right now, I feel pretty confident than before with scarf,” said Mouna. “I was able to change people’s minds about it.”

Without TPS, Mouna has few choices. And worse, if she were to return to Syria--where her mother has now died and war fills every day with danger for families-- she is sure her ex-husband would have full custody over the most important thing in her life: “I’ll lose my son,” said Mouna. “And so I cannot imagine going back there.”

What she longs for is the chance to prove herself here--to get into a medical residency program and build a new life.

 “We are working our fingers to our bone to live,” said Mouna. “We just do deserve a chance to live, an opportunity.”

Monzer: ‘I’ve always wanted democracy’

He goes by Moe, his favorite character from The Simpsons. And it’s thanks to them--along with a hearty diet of American movies, shows, and video games--that Monzer’s English is so good people have a hard time believing he’s from Syria, a country he fled five years ago after being arrested for peacefully protesting the government and its policies.

Now 21 and a senior at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Monzer is determined to become a dentist, like his mother, and his recent admission into the university’s College of Dentistry is the first step toward making that dream come true. Classes begin in August.

But there’s a hitch--a big one: Monzer’s visa status. Right now, he has a temporary protected status, or TPS, a designation of profound uncertainty. If the US government decides not to renew the TPS program for Syrians, all of the hard work Monzer has put into assimilating and all the plans he has made for his future may be for naught.

Monzer is a senior at the University of Iowa and has been accepted at the university's College of Dentistry.

“Once TPS expires, my employment authorization expires as well as the driver’s license connected to it,” said Monzer. Without a valid visa, he can’t apply for the loans he needs to pay for dental school. He can’t apply for a student visa through the school because the Syrian government doesn’t want him to have a passport, he said. And if he were to apply for one, that would damage his chance for asylum here.

“It’s quite tangled up,” said Monzer, adding he is determined to remain optimistic. He must: Syria no longer feels like home to him, even though both his parents are hanging on in Damascus, where his father has long run a medical supply company.

“You can imagine the problems facing any sort of business in Syria right now. Most of the offices we had in different cities are completely destroyed,” said Monzer, and with an inflation rate that has gone through the roof, buying and selling anything has become extraordinarily difficult. So difficult, in fact, that when Monzer arrived in the US, his older brother--a doctor, the father of two young children, and a green-card holder--agreed to provide the support the younger brother needed as he finished high school here.

“At this point, Syria is more foreign to me than the US,” said Monzer. “Most of my friends in Syria are either dead, missing, or refugees in different countries.”

He has worked hard to carve a new life for himself here--a place he always knew he wanted to be.

“I always dreamt of coming to the United States to work because I always knew that my ideas and my beliefs were much more aligned with a western society and the way I’ve always wanted democracy,” said Monzer, who embraced the freedoms he found. “I mean people could say anything they want. People can criticize the president himself.”

And despite the cold indifference of the administration toward refugees, Monzer has found a warm welcome among Iowans--even those he doesn’t know but who are sympathetic to him and the local advocacy he does on behalf of other Syrians struggling with similar challenges.

“Whenever an article about me comes out in the local newspaper here I just get a ton of support from the community, from my faculty, from random people I don’t know saying that they’re showing support and promising to call their congressmen and senators to try and improve the situation,” said Monzer. “And I think that’s what really keeps me optimistic--how great the people in this country are. All the people. All my friends and their families that have accepted me, who I am, and have opened their door for me to eat with them on Thanksgiving and on Christmas.”

Still the kindness of new friends can’t shield him from the deeply troubling reality of TPS.

“For Syria, there is literally no legitimate excuse to end it other than him [Donald Trump] wanting to send people back,” said Monzer.

His message for the xenophobes?

“I’m Muslim. I went to Catholic school. I understand how similar we are. What unites us is way more than what divides us.”

Ahmad: ‘We all feel discriminated against by the government’

It has been five long years since Ahmad, his sister, and their parents were all together as a family back in Damascus, Syria. Today, as uncertainty swirls about the status of Syrian refugees in the US, Ahmad is not sure when--or where--there will be another family reunion.

This much he does know: He does not plan to go back to his war-torn country any time soon. Now 33 and a cyber security expert working at a US-based company, Ahmad’s dream--the dream of all displaced people--is to find a place to settle and live a decent life.

Ahmad is a cyber security expert working at a US-based company. He longs for citizenship.

“Like anyone in life, we need to be located somewhere,” he said. “So everyone, everywhere, is trying to get residency no matter what. I know people in New Zealand. I know people in Australia. I know people (who have) reached Iceland.”

For Ahmad, the dream is to stay right here, in the US, a country whose citizens have welcomed him warmly but whose government, under the current administration, has turned wary and discriminatory.

With a master’s degree in computer science and cyber security from George Washington University, Ahmad is here with a temporary protected status, or TPS, and he is not alone in the uncertainty about his future. Many Syrians with TPS are now in an impossible position: “Either go back to a country with a war or stay here illegally and lose your job as an engineer or as a doctor, or as a whatever . . . and spend your life running from government, getting whatever job just to provide for their families,” said Ahmad.

One friend, he noted, is the father of three children, the youngest of whom was born here and is a US citizen. What is that father to do if his TPS is canceled?

“They’re like tearing down the family,” said Ahmad of the current administration.

Not only would it be a moral failing to send people back to danger, but the strategy is particularly senseless in the face of the contributions many of the 6,000-plus Syrian TPS-holders make. Many of them are well-educated, said Ahmad--doctors, engineers, architects.

“Syrians here in the US, they’re really contributing back to the community, and they’re good people,” said Ahmad.

For him, what makes all of this particularly distressing is his statelessness: As the grandson of a Palestinian refugee who started a new life in Syria decades ago, Ahmad is not considered a citizen of that country.

“My father was born in Syria. I was born in Syria. All of us were born and raised, but we still don’t have any citizenship. I’ve never held a passport in my life,” said Ahmad, whose mother is Syrian. “I have a travel document for a Palestinian refugee issued by the Syrian government.”

The longing to put down roots stretches back for generations.

“For me, getting any citizenship is a dream,” said Ahmad. And when he came to the US in 2012, the warmth he felt was undeniable. “The people are so welcoming,” he said. “They’re great people. They’re supportive. They respect you as a human. They’re such a great community. It’s amazing.”

But he can’t say the same for the US administration.

“Recently, we all feel discriminated against by the government,” said Ahmad. “We just wake up and we look and start reading the news to know what happened. Are we deported? Oh, now they’re banning the travel. OK. We cannot see our parents. . . .Oh, they stopped TPS for Haiti. . . . Are we next?”

Learn more--and stand with refugees from Syria.

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