AMMAN, Jordan — Sitting on the floor in a cramped apartment in east Amman, a Syrian family imagined a new start.
The children — 12-year-old twin girls, Layan and Leen, and their 7-year-old brother, Abdulqader — giggled at the thought of moving to the United States. They talked about Tom and Jerry and SpongeBob SquarePants, and the girls’ dreams of becoming teachers or lawyers.
Their mother said she wants Abdulqader to be a doctor, but he interjected with his own vision for his future: He’d like to sell cars.
After two years in Jordan, Amal Ahmad, the family’s matriarch and sole breadwinner, was recently contacted by the U.N. refugee agency about potentially being resettled to the United States. Her first interview was Feb. 21, part of what she proudly explained is part of a new “accelerated program” for resettling Syrians.
Over recent weeks, the U.S. government has diverted manpower and other resources to the Middle East, hoping to find more and more Syrians who would be good candidates for resettlement. It’s a significant push, one designed not only to protect the most vulnerable families but also to ease the burden on Middle Eastern countries straining under the weight of large numbers of refugees.
But despite these intentions, concerns about security and the political pressure may well mean that families like Ahmad’s face a lengthy wait to find out whether their future lies in the United States.
For years, activists criticized the United States for its slow response to the Syrian refugee crisis, an anomaly for a nation that has historically resettled far more refugees than other nations. Then in September, President Obama ordered that at least 10,000 Syrian refugees be resettled in the United States for the 2016 fiscal year, a significant increase but still a tiny fraction of the millions of Syrian refugees scattered from the country over the past few years.
However, by the end of February, less than 1,000 Syrians have made it to the United States, and resettlement experts question whether the United States can reach its target by September.
Even in the best of cases, it can take 18 to 24 months to resettle refugees of any nationality. Thanks to stringent security concerns, it can take Syrian refugees even longer.
Thousands of Syrian refugees have ended up in limbo. Those in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey find themselves increasingly unwelcome in countries overburdened with refugees. Many give up on their applications, joining the huge flow of people risking their lives to travel to Europe or even back to Syria.
Between February and April, the State Department and Homeland Security Department are pulling in additional staff to Jordan to help interview more and more Syrian applicants. The U.S. Embassy in Jordan said 30 officers from Homeland Security have been posted to Jordan and a new facility has been opened. Similiar efforts are underway in Lebanon and Iraq.
The U.N. refugee agency, which first interviews Syrians and refers vulnerable cases to U.S. authorities, also have shifted into a higher level of energy. Staff have been relocated to Amman from across the region, with evening shifts being put in place. In phone banks, U.N. staff members call refugees who may eligible for resettlement. Those who are will be invited for an interview in the maze-like U.N. center in Amman, where they also give biometric data — a key security procedure that confirms their identity throughout the process.
The United Nations refugee agency is planning to refer at least 9,000 Syrians for resettlement from Jordan alone by the end of the month, staff at the agency’s Amman office say. They expect that around half of that number could eventually be resettled in the United States.
Andrew Harper, the U.N. refugee agency’s representative to Jordan, said the speedy resettlement of 25,000 Syrians in Canada has shown what can be done. But the big difference between Canada and the United States, Harper acknowledged, is their level of security concerns.
“Americans have got very strong security concerns, but what we’ve seen is that refugees rarely, if ever, represent a security threat from resettlement,” he said. “Terrorists are just not coming in through resettlement streams.”
That perspective may not find a receptive audience in the United States, where presidential candidates have made popular calls to end to all Syrian resettlement and a number of governors have threatened to block Syrians from their states.
Those involved in the U.S. side of the resettlement process stress that the screening of Syrian refugees, which includes multiple security checks, is not being accelerated.
“Interviews are going to be as thorough as ever,” said Eleanor Acer, director of Human Rights First’s Refugee Protection program. “No part of the process is being short circuited.”
In practice, this means that Syrians starting the process may still have to wait at least 18 months to be resettled. Some will no doubt move on, but Ahmad’s family says they plan to wait it out.
“To be honest, I have nowhere else to go,” Ahmed said, before the conversation returned to her family’s imagined life in the United States.