The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump says Syrian refugees aren’t vetted. We are. Here’s what we went through.

Our life would be in ruins if we hadn't come here. The process was rigorous.

Linda J. in her Baltimore apartment in 2015. (Ricky Carioti / The Washington Post)

Editor’s note: Linda J. and her family are Syrian refugees who made their way from Damascus to Lebanon and then to Baltimore. She worked with a caseworker and a translator from the International Rescue Committee, the nonprofit agency that helped them resettle here, to tell her family’s story of asylum. (Nabila Hejazi, a Syrian American social-work student, provided further translation assistance.) The Washington Post agreed that she could abbreviate her last name and omit other identifying details to protect family members in Damascus from persecution.

President Trump says that it is not safe to accept certain kinds of refugees without “extreme vetting” that he has yet to detail. So he has now banned people from seven countries, including Syria, which I fled with my family in 2014. But we were thoroughly vetted before we came here, just like other refugees — exhaustively, endlessly vetted. We are not terrorists. And if we’d been stopped from coming here, we would be suffering horribly right now.

When our 7-day-old son died while receiving treatment for jaundice in a Damascus hospital, my husband and I decided to flee the country with our daughters. (I described the experience in an essay for The Post, parts of which are adapted here.) We ended up in a cramped apartment in Tripoli, Lebanon, where we soon spent our savings; we were living hand-to-mouth.

After a year, I received a call from the United Nations asking if my family would like to resettle somewhere else. Based on our documents, stories and circumstances — our large family, five girls, my husband’s potential as a healthy worker — we had been deemed eligible to apply for refugee status.

We could not return home to Syria. We could not continue living on the brink of starvation in Lebanon. A safe option was available: We began the application process to come to the United States.

The process started with a series of meetings with U.S. government representatives — at least five in-­person interviews with each of us and countless phone conversations. The questions were very detailed: about my family, my friends, how I spent my time. The interviewers often knew the answers to the questions before they asked them. They asked about my life going back to the day I was born; they even knew the location of the hospital. My story is my story, so I knew that the details would match their information. But I was stunned by the level of scrutiny and the length of the process.

Each member of the family told their story, and those stories had to be consistent with interviews given by other people who knew us. If our answers didn’t match information U.S. officials already had, or if they couldn’t validate our information, we didn’t progress to the next step. I had only a glimmer of hope that this would work — and that we could have a safe life for my daughters. We lived on that hope.

Finally, more than a year after we began applying and more than two years after we fled Damascus, we were cleared in December 2014 to resettle in Baltimore. We had $30 for the journey. During an airport layover in Germany, I bought a drink and, without realizing it, spent a third of our savings on a $10 bottle of water. My husband joked that now we were really finished and should just turn back.

We, too, have been appalled by the Islamic State’s terrorist attacks around the world, and we condemn them wholeheartedly. My family and I lived through horrific acts like these. I believe the screening we underwent was so intense, so thorough and so long that it would be impossible for militants to come here.

Now my daughters, who previously spoke no English, are in school, and my husband has a good job as a driver for a clothing company. My biggest dream is for them to have a good education and good careers, and for us to be part of this society: to learn the language, to do something productive, to integrate. That’s exactly what Trump believes is impossible.

If we hadn’t been able to come here, we would have been stuck. My parents and siblings are still in Tripoli, and they say the situation is so bad that you can’t imagine it. There’s no work, the rent for houses is unaffordable and half the people are supported by the U.N. There is little medical assistance, and people who get sick don’t have money for medicine. The situation is very bad. It is like this in other refugee destinations, too — in Jordan, Turkey and Egypt.

Things in Damascus, my hometown, are even worse. My sister still lives there with her sick husband and five children; we talk by WhatsApp every once in a while. They go four or five days without eating, even though she was recently pregnant. Because there are few doctors (and the ones that remain cost too much money), my sister gave birth by herself at home seven days ago. She isn’t well-nourished enough to nurse the little girl, so they’ve begun cooking rice kernels and feeding them to the infant. They are going to lose the baby if they keep that up, but it’s really hard to see your kid starve to death in front of you, so what are they supposed to do?

Trump says he wants to fight terrorism, but instead he’s fighting the victims of terrorism. I want to ask him: If America is based on diverse people from different cultures and countries, what right do you have to tell suffering Muslims that they are unwelcome. Even your wife is an immigrant! Is it because she’s not from a Muslim country?

With Trump’s policy, we are telling people who are dying: We can’t help you. Stay where you are, and die there.