MEGAN THOMPSON: Syrian refugee Mohamad Taleb and his 7-year-old son Obaida are learning English at this class for refugees in eastern Pennsylvania.
Taleb arrived in the United States a year and a half ago with his wife and four children. They settled in Allentown, about 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia, and far from the violence at home.
MOHAMAD TALEB (VOICE OF INTERPRETER): It’s such a rough thing to be in the middle of war and destruction and watch children dying in front of you. You just want to escape with your children. You’re more afraid for your children than you are for yourself.
MEGAN THOMPSON: Allentown and surrounding Lehigh County are home to around 42-hundred residents of Syrian descent, one of the largest Syrian communities in the nation. They began arriving a century ago, working in silk and steel mills. About a hundred are refugees from the current civil war.
ED PAWLOWSKI: It falls on us as a local government…
MEGAN THOMPSON: Allentown mayor Ed Pawlowski, a Democrat, says he’s had to set up a new office to handle the flood of questions about the recent White House executive order on immigration.
ED PAWLOWSKI: I think that has sparked a lot of fear within the community not even in the Syrian community, but the community in general, among immigrants that what does this all mean and where is this going?
MEGAN THOMPSON: President Trump’s executive order also worries Mohamad Taleb. His sister and her family remain back in the Middle East.
MOHAMAD TALEB: I’m honestly very upset by it. People are trying to come over here to have a chance at a decent life, to live in a better country, to live well. He’s depriving people of that chance, and I wish he would reconsider and let people in again.
MEGAN THOMPSON: Taleb is Muslim, as is his friend and fellow Syrian refugee, Abdul Kader Aldalati. Aldalati says he thinks Trump has every right to protect his country. But, even though the executive order doesn’t mention specific religions, Aldalati feels Muslims have been singled out.
ABDUL KADER ALDALATI (VOICE OF INTERPRETER): Before we came here, the first thing they taught us was that America doesn’t tolerate racism whatsoever.
MEGAN THOMPSON: Now that you’re here, are you seeing something different?
ABDUL KADER ALDALATI: Definitely.
MEGAN THOMPSON: While Aldalati and Taleb are Muslim, many of the Syrians in Allentown are Christian. …and they’re not all completely opposed to the executive order. Like Ayoub Jarrouj. He came to the U.S. in the 1960’s and now runs the Syrian Arab American Charity Association, which helped Taleb’s family resettle in Allentown.
AYOUB JARROUJ: If the ban is temporary, and if it is to check to see who’s coming in here, check the background, I am for it. But to say ‘no more refugees, no more Muslim refugees,’ that’s not fair. They love this country. They are doing a great job, and they are respected and loved by their neighbors.
MEGAN THOMPSON: Other Syrian Christians we met are more wary of those who want to come here.
AZIZ WEHBEY: We are not against bringing the refugees over here, but we are against bringing the wrong refugees over here.
MEGAN THOMPSON: Aziz Wehbey came to the U.S. in the 1990’s and Munzer Haddad immigrated in the 1960’s. They strongly support the executive order.
So you see a difference between the people who are coming here now through our refugee program and people who immigrated here under circumstances like you did?
AZIZ WEHBEY: Yes. Like the Syrian refugees who are coming from Jordan or from Turkey. We do not know their background, their relations, while they were in Syria, because we have no intelligent information from the Syrian government since we have no communication with the Syrian government. Are the family been recruited by ISIS? Do they have the radical mentality?
MUNZER HADAD: If anything happen, God forbid.
AZIZ WEHBEY: We don’t want to lose our good reputation.
MUNZER HADAD: And good standing. And good standing. We established a record in here since the 1800s. We established a good record- the Syrian community in here- especially in the Lehigh valley.
MEGAN THOMPSON: Both Wehbey and Haddad voted for President Trump. They say their greatest wish is for him to help end the war in Syria and improve relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom they also support.
AZIZ WEHBEY: Helping the refugees really, mainly is to help their country being stable again.
MEGAN THOMPSON: For refugee Mohamad Taleb, waiting for the war to end was not an option. His family went through a year of interviews and investigation before the U.S. granted them visas. In Allentown, Taleb says, they now have more opportunities- he works as a welder, and his four kids are all in school. Obaida says his favorite subject is math.
Do you know what you want to be when you grow up?
OBAIDA TALEB: A doctor.
MOHAMAD TALEB: It’s my hope that the doors of immigration will open for refugees again, and I hope the American community won’t frame things in terms of labels like Muslim or Christian or Jew, or any other religion for that matter.