Rising tension over terrorism, refugees

President Obama. Photo: White House

President Obama. Photo: White House

By Murphy Stidham and Kathleen Bajalia | gargoyle@flagler.edu
President Obama today plans to deliver a prime-time address on how his administration will defeat the Islamic State, also known as ISIL.
“He will reiterate his firm conviction that ISIL will be destroyed and that the United States must draw upon our values — our unwavering commitment to justice, equality, and freedom — to prevail over terrorist groups that use violence to advance a destructive ideology,” the White House said on Facebook.
The president will also provide an update on the government’s investigation into Wednesday’s attack in San Bernardino, California. Two suspected followers of the Islamic State massacred 14 people there before police killed them in a shootout.
The attack came three weeks after terrorists in Paris killed 130 people, fueling some Americans’ reluctance to accept refugees from such countries as Iraq and Syria.
The Islamic State controls parts of Iraq and Syria. Refugees have been fleeing Syria by the thousands. The Obama administration plans to accept as many as 10,000 refugees from that country. Some are likely to wind up in Jacksonville, Florida, home to one of the five largest Syrian communities in America.
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry vows to stop the refugees from coming to the city. While Americans have a history of compassion in response to global emergencies, it is more important to keep potential threats out of the country, he said in a Nov. 17 letter.
“We cannot allow those who would do us harm to use our principles and beliefs as a weakness to exploit,” Curry wrote.
The governors of 30 states, including Florida, have said they oppose the federal government’s plans to send Syrian refugees to their states. But the states may not be able to prevent the resettlement of Syrian refugees.
“The state does not have the authority to prevent the federal government from funding the relocation of these Syrian refugees to Florida even without state support,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott wrote.
On Nov. 16, in Tallahassee, Scott said the state needs more information about how refugees are vetted. “Why wouldn’t you take your time doing this, especially when you know that one of them posed as a refugee?” Scott said, referring to one of the suspects in the Paris attacks. “And we’re going to say, ‘Oh, we’re OK?’ No. You slow down and make a good decision before you go forward.”


Christopher Vizcaino

In an online poll by First Coast News, nearly 74 percent of 2,200 people who responded said Florida should prevent Syrian refugees from settling in the state.
Christopher Vizcaino, 25, St. Augustine, Florida, agreed.
“There could be a few ISIS people in the group,” he says.
The Paris attack “proves that a few radical Muslims can kill a lot of innocent people in a heartbeat. Why give them the chance?”
If Syrians need to seek refuge, they should find it in another country, he says.
“We have plenty of homeless people who could use the care over some immigrants.”
Even some Syrians in Jacksonville are concerned about accepting refugees.
“Honestly for me, I feel bad when I say, do not bring Syrians here because a lot of people need a lot of help, but the bad thing about it is, who are you going to bring them here to?” says Wasim Maklouf, a Christian Syrian and owner of Dandana Restaurant in Jacksonville. “If it is going to be like how they did in Europe, where they bring all of the Muslim people, then no.”

Wasim Makhlouf, owner of Dandana Restaurant. Credit: Kathleen Bajalia

Wasim Makhlouf. Photo: Kathleen Bajalia

Another Christian Syrian, Joseph Yazji, 24, was born and raised in Jacksonville and says his heritage is a huge part of who he is today. “Being Syrian doesn’t differ much from being any other Arab descent whether Palestinian or Lebanese- the hearts are the same filled with welcoming spirits and the passions are the same to build a better future for their children.”
Although Yazji appreciates that Curry puts safety of Jacksonville first, he does not agree with the mayor. “Besides this war being a humanitarian crisis and it being our duty to help mankind in its darkest hour, I really don’t think that welcoming more people to our city will have deleterious effect on Jacksonville.”
Yazji says of the 10,000 Syrian refugees being accepted into the U.S., Jacksonville will only be given as many as the city can handle.
“Syrians have been in Jacksonville since before 1900s,” he says, “and my family is part of the original ones that crossed the Atlantic.”
Since then, Yazji says, Syrians and Arabs as a whole have only contributed to the greatness of this city. “From business owners, doctors, lawyers, engineers and the list goes on, we are proud of who we are as much as being proud Americans.”
Yazji says a prime example is his late grandfather, Forrest Joseph. “He opened a grocery store in an underserved area of Jacksonville in the 1950s. To this day it is one of the few places in that area where you can shop.”


Joseph Yazji

Yazji says his family is very fortunate not to have lost any immediate family members in Syria’s civil war, but he does know of many souls taken during the fight.
Many of his relatives still live in Syria.
“My cousin’s aunt was leaving church on Sunday and not far from her a bomb fell and the shrapnel killed her. There were no terrorists around her, she was just walking home from church,” he says.
The bomb fell on his cousin’s wedding day.
“They were in the middle of the ceremony in the church and by the grace of God a mortal shell hit the church but did not go off. If that would have gone off all of the family would have been gone.”
“God was with them,” Yazji says.
He says he is not asking Jacksonville to take all Syrians, but rather asking the city to have an open arm out to them.

Qur’an, or Book of Recitations, made in Saudi Arabia. Photo: Murphy Stidham

Qur’an, or Book of Recitations, made in Saudi Arabia. Photo: Murphy Stidham

“If the Syrians do decide to live in Jacksonville, we should not shun them, we should not mock them, we should not isolate them, but we should help them to get adjusted, to get signed up for school, to help them find a place to live and work.”
The Syrians are not coming to America for vacation, Yazji says.
“They are coming for a chance at life, a chance for an education, a chance for health care. They were dealt an extremely unfortunate and bad card in life. They are coming to America, possibly Jacksonville, to rectify their chances to live a life of peace and to follow out the dreams that were taken from them if they would have stayed in Syria.”
Yazji says his heart goes out to all Syrians seeking refuge.
“I don’t know what’s worse, staying in Syria or trying to escape.”
The United States accepted 1,854 Syrian refugees from 2012 to September 2015, according to a New York Times analysis.
The three social services agencies in Jacksonville that help relocate refugees can take a total of 2,000 refugees of all nationalities per year, according to Lutheran Social Services of Northeast Florida.

Bruce Flickenger. Credi: Murphy Stidham

Bruce Flickenger. Photo: Murphy Stidham

Bruce Flickenger, who teaches a class on world religions at Flagler College, doesn’t believe Syrian refugees should be blocked from coming to Jacksonville.
“I don’t think any of us should be opposed to Syrians coming here because it is wrong to paint a broad brush and broad picture of any individuals,” he says.
Flickenger says Syrians are not a threat in Jacksonville or probably anywhere else in the country. And he says that if any arriving refugee were to show tendencies towards radicalism, that individual would not be welcomed into the Jacksonville Muslim community.
“I don’t think that they would find much of a welcome here if they were going to try and penetrate into the Muslim community here,” he says.
Flickenger says he knows several Muslims who are professionals in Jacksonville. “They do not like extreme Islam,” he says.
He recalled that just after the Sept. 11 attacks, acts of hate and harassment forced a Muslim leader at a mosque in Jacksonville to leave.
“There was some real tension that had grown up between certain Christians in Jacksonville and the Muslim community based on a misunderstanding of the Muslim community in Jacksonville,” he says. “This group of individuals who were making these violent comments toward the Muslim community really didn’t understand Islam very well. They were acting on stereotypes.”


Photo: Murphy Stidham

Flickenger says refugees are carefully screened before being admitted into the U.S.
“There are lots of easier ways to get into this country than coming through a refugee program,” he says.
Refugees seeking resettlement must pass through steps aimed at ensuring that they will not pose a security risk. Processing time can take two years.
“Resettlement to a country like the U.S. presents a life-saving alternative for a very small number of refugees around the world,” according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

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