Syrian American refugee family details vetting process for entry into the United States

Posted at 8:27 PM, Jan 30, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-30 22:39:57-05

After a chaotic weekend following President Trump's executive order involving immigration and a temporary halt of the refugee resettlement program, there is a lot of fear, uncertainty, and sadness among the local refugee community.

RELATED: Federal court temporarily blocks Trump's immigration ban

Those who have already found a home in America were hopeful to see loved ones and relatives joining them soon. Many of them are currently undergoing the long and rigorous vetting process, but with a swipe of President Trump’s pen, all hopes were dashed.

Fatima Halawi, an elderly refugee who lives in Phoenix, said she does not think she will make it to see her son come to the United States. She sobbed and said she had lost all hope of being alive to see that day come.

She moved to the United States about a year ago with the rest of her family which included her husband, one son, his wife, and eight children.

Sadak Halawi, her son, said he was disappointed in the executive order because Syrians have already been through so much violence. Most of them missed their homeland, which had been ripped away from them due to a lengthy civil war. 

His 15-year-old daughter Fatiman said she had witnessed bombs dropping. They were all young children who saw death and devastation first hand, then made the long journey by foot, vehicles, and boats to several Middle Eastern countries as they moved from settlement area to settlement area.

"We have a dream that my brother is coming over and seeing his mom and dad. Now this executive order has destroyed that dream," said Sadak Halawi.

He said he understood the need for stricter security measures and personally went through a rigorous vetting process that lasted more than a year.

"We have an interview every time for 2-3 hours. They ask us since childhood what did we do, what life we had, where did you go, who is your friend, they want to know everything," said Halawi.

He welcomed the vetting process, as he realized it was their ticket to escape from all the violence to a land where they hoped to live in peace and make a new home.

"I am so proud to be an American," said Halawi. An American flag is proudly displayed both inside and outside his home.

As the nation waited to find out how the refugee vetting process would change, ABC15 looked into what Syrian refugees have been going through now.

According to the State Department, it all begins with an investigation and referral by the United Nations. That is followed by an interview with a State Department official, then a series of at least three background checks and then three fingerprint screenings.  

After that is a case review by a U.S. immigration official. Syrian refugees have to go through an additional case review. There is also an extensive in-person interview with the Department of Homeland Security. Most of these steps take place well before the refugees even glimpse U.S. soil. 

After that is a medical screening for diseases, a cultural orientation, then another background check as months have lapsed since the first round of checks. The final step is a security clearance check when they land in the U.S.

Steve Arkawi, the president of the Syrian American Council, said all Syrian refugees were extremely grateful to be in the United States. They had escaped so much violence, they just wanted to live in peace and be safe, and create a future for their young children.

He urged Americans not to paint every Syrian, and every Muslim, with one brush and stressed that there were radical people in every religion.

The Halawi's are holding on to hope, that their relatives will soon be able to find a new home in America, just as they have.

There are about 700 Syrian refugees living in the Phoenix area, according to the Syrian American Council. If you are interested in helping these families resettle you can contact Arkawi at (602) 432-5522.