ROYAL OAK, MICH. — Rasha Basha shoved skyward the noisy metal door to a warehouse in this suburb of Detroit, and the afternoon sun illuminated a vast plain of wooden furniture, household appliances and colorful baby walkers.
Basha’s visits to this place are usually joyous occasions, the moment when grateful families newly arrived from Syria select bedroom sets, toothbrushes and other tangible evidence of lives, finally, being rebuilt. But on Monday, Basha scanned the space with anxiety, worried that the six families she expects in December will not be able to come.
“These are innocent families who deserve a better life. Their children deserve a better life and safety,” said Basha, 45, whose family arrived here from Syria in 1983. “We are very worried and disturbed.”
Following the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris, nearly two dozen governors across the nation scrambled Monday to stop the federal government from settling new Syrian refugees in their states, arguing that the new arrivals may pose a threat to American security. Among the first and most surprising was Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), who until this weekend had enthusiastically embraced the idea of resettling refugees in a depopulated Detroit.
As concerns mount among European security officials that one of the terrorists had been posing as a Syrian refugee, Snyder’s move captured the rising political pressure governors face in the wake of the attacks. But it also startled Arab Americans nationwide, particularly in communities such as Detroit, where the new flow of refugees had been welcomed for its potential to boost local economic fortunes.
“It appears Governor Snyder gave in to the xenophobic trend that has gripped the Republican Party and its presidential candidates,” said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“Xenophobia trumps logic when you have a climate that plays to the worst fears of the people,” Walid said, adding that the years-long “killing spree” waged by Islamic State militants “has been primarily killing Muslims.”
It was not clear what authority Snyder, or any other governor, might have to prevent refugees from settling in his state. On Monday, Snyder spokesman Dave Murray said only that Michigan would halt its own campaign to solicit additional refugees until officials are able to review federal procedures for screening applicants.
The move would not affect any families already en route to Michigan, Murray said, adding, “It’s not expected to be a prolonged review.”
Several other governors directly acknowledged their inability to prevent the federal government from accepting and financing the resettlement of refugees. Refugees become permanent residents of the United States upon their arrival, eligible for Medicaid and other public assistance and authorized to work. After a year, they are eligible for a green card. Five years after that, they can become U.S. citizens, with all the rights and freedoms that entails.
On Monday, State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said families from Syria are subject to a rigorous, 18-to-24-month security screening before they are accepted into the refugee program. He declined to address the complaints of governors, saying, “We believe it’s incumbent on us to sit with them, consult with them, explain to them the process.”
According to State Department figures, 2,178 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the United States since the conflict broke out in 2011. Virtually all of them have come within the past year. The Obama administration has vowed to resettle at least 10,000 people in the fiscal year that started last month, and the pace is quickening.
Since Oct. 1, 305 Syrian refugees have come to the United States, compared with 65 during the same period in 2014. That is a rate of less than 50 a week — far short of the almost 200 a week needed to hit the Obama administration’s target of 10,000 by next fall.
In Detroit, Basha’s volunteer group, the Syrian American Rescue Network, has helped assimilate 35 families — 168 people in all — since April. Here, they join a Syrian American community that is already 3,000 strong, behind only Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.
The Detroit region is also home to one of the nation’s largest populations of Arab Americans, more than 400,000 people who have settled here in waves since the 1970s from various war-torn Middle Eastern locales. The desperate need of refugee families is keenly felt.
“I am very disappointed and surprised by the governor,” said Yahya M. Basha, Rasha’s brother-in-law and a longtime fundraiser for Snyder and other GOP candidates. “This is a knee-jerk decision.”
Many of those cleared to resettle in the United States have been living in refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey. The six families expected in December have all been in Jordan for more than three years, having fled their homeland even before the islamic State began its incursions into Syria.
In addition to a warehouse full of supplies donated by people using online registries, the rescue organization offers refugee families English classes and job placement assistance. All the adults who have come this year, Rasha Basha said, are employed.
“These are the victims they are picking on,” she said. “They are fleeing from that terror.”
Wasim Alawad, for instance, works as a chef at a local Shawarma Kingdom restaurant. Alawad, 31, fled to Jordan with his pregnant wife and daughter in 2012 as tanks rolled into their neighborhood in Homs, Syria. The family arrived in Michigan in September and, with Basha’s help, settled into a two-bedroom garden apartment in tony Bloomfield Hills.
The notion that terrorists might slip through the screening process baffled Alawad. He said he and his wife endured four lengthy interviews — two by American authorities and two by U.N. officials — in which they answered countless questions about his military service, their personal connections and the minutiae of their daily lives back home.
“If any answers were different from one interview to another, you automatically were disqualified from coming,” Alawad said. “If my wife said something different from me, that would disqualify us, too.”
They also suffered. Alawad was so determined to work in Jordan that he got a job as a shawarma chef, which is against the rules for refugees. When he was discovered, his family was forced to move to another camp.
His 8-month-old son, Ahmad, who was in utero when they fled, choked to death at a medical clinic when doctors refused to provide care, he said. His brothers are in limbo in Lebanon and Germany. And his parents remain in Homs, he said, his eyes suddenly glassy with emotion.
Like many recent Syrian immigrants, Alawad was unaware of the political storm raging over refugees since the Paris attacks. Learning of it stunned and confused him. He rubbed his black apron, took off his red baseball cap and looked quizzically at Basha, who was translating his Arabic.
“Why would people be scared of me?” he said, gesturing at himself. “We just wanted to go where it is safe from a government who wants to hurt us. That’s all.”
Friess is a freelance writer. Morello reported from Washington. Abby Phillip and Pam Constable in Washington contributed to this report.