Syrian refugees describe confusing vetting process, uncertainty in America

For nearly two years, Mahmoud and his extended family of 17 lived in an Egyptian camp for refugees, experiencing first-hand the U.S. process for vetting Syrian refugees for admission into America.

It boiled down to five interviews, totaling roughly four hours, in which they answered mostly ‘yes or no’ questions, according to Mahmoud, who finally made it to the U.S. on July 18 along with wife, children and grandchildren. Grateful to be in America after their circuitous flight from their embattled hometown of Homs, they nonetheless remain confused about what they have gone through and what lies ahead.

“The interview process was long, but not scary," said Mahmoud, who asked that his full name not be used. "We had nothing to hide."

The vetting began halfway into what was a four-year stint at the refugee camp in Alexandria. The interviews, with various UN and U.S. officials, were quick, and much of the focus was on the men's mandatory service in the Syrian Army, with questions about where they served, their duties and whether they committed any war crimes, the family patriarch told in an interview at the modest home in Fontana, Calif., where they are staying.

Mahmoud'wife, Hand, with grandchildren Mohamed and Shahed.

Mahmoud'wife, Hand, with grandchildren Mohamed and Shahed. (

The final interview was with an American official who introduced himself as being from "national security." Each of the three connected families was questioned together, then the father alone and the mother alone. They said they were required to simply give either a "yes" or "no" response to such questions as “are you a member or representative of a terrorist organization?” and “do you seek to engage in terrorist activities while in the United States or have you ever engaged in terrorist activities?”

The family got a push toward America when Mahmoud’s daughter-in-law, Najah, was diagnosed in the Egyptian camp with multiple sclerosis. A United Nations doctor monitoring the camp told government officials the 30-year-old woman’s best chance for medical treatment lay in the U.S.

Mahmoud, second from right, and the other men of the family, from left: Akram, Ahmad and Amjad.

Mahmoud, second from right, and the other men of the family, from left: Akram, Ahmad and Amjad. (

Mahmoud’s extended family is part of an effort by the Obama administration to meet its fiscal year objective of resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees before the end of September. Those placed in the U.S are considered to be the "most vulnerable" cases fleeing the violence and persecution of the Syrian civil war.

Resettling Syrian refugees in the United States became a particularly hot-button topic following the terrorist attacks in Paris last November, prompting a large number of Republican lawmakers to express grave concerns that security screenings are not adequate and Islamic terrorists could easily slip in with the masses. However, administration officials insist that screening measures are beyond thorough, and that it has been specially augmented for those coming from Syria, although the exact augmentations remain classified.

"DHS officers receive additional, specialized training before interviewing Syrian applicants and that higher-risk applicants are subject to screening of their social media postings, among other measures,” said a representative for the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

Najah, with daughters Hand, (l.), and Lara.

Najah, with daughters Hand, (l.), and Lara. (

Leon Rodriguez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration services said "hundreds" of Syrians have been screened out through the process due to "credibility concerns" that have arisen during the interview process described by Mahmoud.

Mahmoud, a Mulsim who painted and taught Arabic for a living in his homeland, insisted that neither he nor any of the relatives who made the journey with him have ties or sympathies with terrorist groups of the Assad regime.

The family's nightmare began in the early stages of the 2011 Arab Spring, in which citizens in a number of Muslim-majority nations took to the streets to demand freedom and democracy. Mahmoud was part of a group of Homs intellectuals who would secretly meet to discuss politics. Eventually, most were rounded up by government intelligence and charged with "going against the State."

Suspicion spread to family members, and Mahmoud’s son, Amjad, a pharmacy assistant, recalled being taken to Damascus and held for four months in a dirty basement cell so small he could only lie in the fetal position. He faced starvation and torture before being released pending trial, he said.

A few months later, as the civil war that would claim more than 400,000 lives and launch a global humanitarian crisis unfolded, their homes were destroyed by mortar fire. After three days cowering and crying in a tiny bathroom without food, the family risked sniper fire to flee to a nearby town. From there, they escaped to Egypt with nothing but the clothes on their back in August of 2012.

When Mahmoud and his relatives finally left Egypt last month, they were temporarily placed in a hotel in Glendale, Calif. Then, a local aid group, Syrian Christians for Peace, found them the small home in Fontana where they were staying earlier this month. That home is also temporary, and the family doesn’t know where it will go next. Najah had yet to receive medical attention for the condition that helped bring her to the U.S., and issues have arisen with her official documentation.

For the Syrian family, the bureaucratic red tape involving Najah’s “I-94” form proving her identity is just the latest confusing glitch in the vetting process. The associated resettlement agency confirmed there was an issue with hers, and CBP was unable to provide Specifics due to privacy laws, but the issue is said to have been resolved.

"When refugees arrive, they are literally overwhelmed. They have to start all over, which is a big shock. But in exchange for that, their lives have been saved," said Stephen Voss, president & CEO of the International Institute of Los Angeles, the local agency currently working with the federal government to resettle refugees like Mahmoud and his family.

Even as they adjust to new surroundings and battle bureaucracy, families must prepare for a future in which they sustain themselves. Each refugee gets $925 to help them settle and refugees are entitled to public benefits, but adults are expected to find jobs. In fact, they are obligated to repay the U.S. government for their plane fare to America.

According to a State Department spokesperson, most refugees attend a three-day cultural orientation class before they arrive which is designed to provide information about the U.S. and what to expect. That was news to Mahmoud and his family.

“We have no preparation,” he said.

Other family members said the most they knew of America was from "Batman" and "Superman" movies and that they were surprised it wasn't all high-rise buildings and that they would need a car to get around.

Another Syrian Muslim family – husband Nour, 28 who worked in sales at a local market and wife Miriam, 23 who was studying early childhood education at a local university and nine-month-old daughter Sanaa – told a similar story of trauma and confusion at their new surroundings. They arrived in Los Angeles on July 27, having spent the last couple of years in a refugee camp in Jordan.

They are living in a nondescript motel just north of the city which they said they cannot afford, but were told moving out of Los Angeles County into a cheaper area could jeopardize their settlement benefits.

They also told they have not undergone medical examinations or orientation. However, Miriam noted that they went through six interviews in the vetting process – four with her husband and two alone. Just over a month before boarding a plane, the Syrian family got word that their application had been approved and that they were being flown to America.

The couple, who were neighbors in Syria, then reunited and married in the Jordanian camp, say their flight to the U.S. has been littered with confusion and a seeming lack of guidance. For more than two weeks, they have lived on cheese and bread, Nour said.

"I don't know when I can get a work permit,” said Nour, pacing the room and lamenting that he could not protect his family. “I haven't been told anything.”

Jamie Brennan contributed to this report