Syrian refugees who recently arrived in New Jersey are getting unsettling phone calls — from the FBI.
But the special agent in charge of the FBI's office in Newark, Timothy Gallagher, told WNYC Wednesday that its recent round of phone calls to refugees was simply outreach to a new community — not surveillance or anything more threatening.
"You're starting a relationship, you're starting a dialogue, you're opening up channels of communication between us and those that we serve," Gallagher said. He didn't specify the kind of information the Syrians could provide, but he said their "knowledge" could keep America safe.
The immigrants who received the phone calls, which were first reported by The Record in Bergen County, have not agreed to the FBI's requests for meetings, according to advocates who helped them resettle in New Jersey. The advocates said that after fleeing a country where police can't be trusted — and landing in a new country where the president views refugees as potential terrorist threats — they fear any encounter with federal law enforcement. They were also unwilling to speak directly to a reporter about what happened.
"They come from a police dictatorship where speaking to government agencies can make people disappear, sometimes for years, so they're definitely very afraid," said Mohamed Khairullah, a Syrian-American and the mayor of Prospect Park, NJ. In Syria, encounters with law enforcement can lead to coercion and false confessions.
Khairullah has aided Syrian refugees in New Jersey and traveled to the country over the course of its civil war on humanitarian missions. He advised refugees to speak to the FBI only alongside Arabic-speaking attorneys.
Gallagher said this operation is not part of a new national program and is simply like any kind of communication that the FBI office in Newark has with various communities from around the world.
"We can't be successful here in the FBI without tapping into the knowledge of the community we serve," he said. For example, if there's a hate crime that affects Syrians, Gallagher said, it would be helpful for them to have a relationship with an FBI agent whom they felt comfortable contacting.
There is "nothing covert about what we're doing in this operation," Gallagher said. "When they're ready to sit down, we'd be happy to sit down," he said. "This is outreach. This is not surveillance."
But mosques in the post-Sept. 11 era have a history of being surveilled by law enforcement — most notably, at a mosque in Paterson that the NYPD spied on. The fact that New York police officers crossed deep into a different state to monitor Muslims continues to rankle those in the community. The FBI has also done surveillance of mosques elsewhere around the country.
"What kind of cruelty must be in the hearts of this administration to target these already traumatized people who fled death and destruction seeking refuge in our nation," said Salaheddin Mustafa, the outreach coordinator for the Islamic Center of Passaic County in Paterson. "These guys have earned the right for us to not give them the benefit of the doubt and simply assume something much darker."
Gallagher wouldn't say whether the FBI hoped to gain information from the Syrians that could be useful for American military operations in Syria. But if that's the case, Khairullah said the Syrians in New Jersey would be of little help, since many of the refugees have been in refugee camps elsewhere in the Middle East — not in Syria — for several years.
"These are just families hoping to have normal lives," Khairullah said.