Allentown, Pennsylvania and the surrounding Lehigh County are home to one of the largest Syrian communities in the United States, with roots in the region dating back at least 100 years, and dozens flooding in more recently during Syria’s six-year civil war.
President Donald Trump’s executive order last week banning refugees and immigrants from seven countries, including Syria, has ignited mixed feelings among some of the 4,200 Syrian residents who live in this area.
During a recent interview in George Khallouf’s home in Allentown, his kitchen was adorned with a large photo of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and a smaller image of Trump, with Syrian and U.S. flags draped on a wall. He immigrated to the United States from the city of Homs, Syria more than 40 years ago.
Khallouf, who voted for Trump and describes himself as a “church man,” said he is afraid that the vetting system for those fleeing the war in his home country is not stringent enough to keep America safe. Yet Khallouf said he has not seen any signs of radicalism in the Allentown area.
“They come with zero, they have nothing,” he said. “But who knows what comes with them from ISIS?”
Mohamad Taleb, a Syrian Muslim, moved to Allentown in 2015 as a refugee with his wife and four children. He said he spent three years in Jordan after fleeing his home city of Douma, north of Damascus.
After more than a year awaiting a visa to the U.S., a process he said included heavy vetting by the U.S. authorities, he arrived in Allentown.
“It’s such a rough thing to be in the middle of war and destruction and watch children dying in front of you,” Taleb said, in an interview with the NewsHour. “You just want to escape with your children. You’re more afraid for your children than you are for yourself.”
Now settled, he began a job as a welder soon after he arrived in the country. His children are in school and he regularly attends English lessons with some of his family.
The order, which was reversed on Friday in a Seattle federal court, has been chastised by organizations representing refugees and immigrants in Allentown along with the city’s Mayor Ed Pawlowski.
“I think this has sparked a lot of fear in the community.” Pawlowski said on Thursday, also noting that the city has started an immigration office that includes pro bono legal services for immigrants of the city. “There’s a lot of confusion that’s out there.”
Despite the reversal, Taleb still worries about his sister who continues to live back in Syria and millions more who have fled the war-weary country.
“I’m honestly very upset by it,” Taleb said of the president’s executive order. “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.”