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Syrian Refugee Father Shares His Story With Help Of U.S. Veteran


Donald Trump repeatedly criticized Syrian refugees when he was running for president. During his second debate with Hillary Clinton, he said they were definitely in many cases ISIS-aligned, and he called them a great Trojan horse.

Well, NPR's Deborah Amos now introduces us to a Marine veteran who has taken up the cause of those refugees and a father and daughter who fled Syria for the U.S. a couple of years ago not knowing that they'd be part of this intense political debate.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Mohammed and Lulu - no last names because of family back home - now when Mohammed and his 17-year-old daughter give public talks, Mohammed has a killer opening line. He's been telling American audiences, I'm Syrian; you're supposed to be afraid of me.

MOHAMMED: (Laughter) They laugh mostly because they knew that I'm, like, a usual guy like them. I have children. I love my children. So this is why they laugh when I tell them that I am the one that you should be afraid of.

AMOS: He was a software manager in Damascus, a consultant for Yahoo who often visited the U.S. In 2011, Mohammed sided with what started as a peaceful revolt against a repressive regime, a high crime, he says, often punished by torture and death.

MOHAMMED: And when I knew that the regime there knew about what I'm doing, I know that I should flee out of Syria.

AMOS: Lulu, were you worried for your father? You must have known he was doing that.

LULU: I did not know, actually. He kept it very secret.

AMOS: Detention came not in Syria but when they landed in America in 2014. Immigration officials sent them to a detention center in rural Pennsylvania where they would stay for more than five months. They got caught up in a controversial Obama administration program meant to discourage asylum seekers from Central America, mostly mothers and children, in a facility called a family detention center.

MOHAMMED: Which is, like, something very horrible, actually, to know that there's something called family detention center.

AMOS: Lulu, what was it like to be in jail with your dad?

LULU: It was surreal. From one side, it was good that I was with my dad, you know, that I wasn't put in some juvie, you know, detention center. But still it was horrible.

AMOS: A week after their release May 2015, Mohammed and Lulu returned to the Pennsylvania center part of a demonstration led by immigration lawyers and advocates to protest against the policy and the place. They were featured in a video produced by Human Rights First, an advocacy group in Washington.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What do you think the hardest thing was?

MOHAMMED: The hardest thing is that we did not know when we are going to go out.

LULU: Yeah, the feeling that you were trapped...

AMOS: Since then, they've jumped headlong into American culture - high School for Lulu - for Mohammed, a high-tech job in New York. And they've become refugee stars.

SCOTT COOPER: I think Mohammed is an exceptional spokesman because he immediately is someone that we can all relate to. It was him trying to take care of his family - is the reason that he left Syria.

AMOS: Scott Cooper is the Marine veteran in the partnership. At Human Rights First, he launched Veterans for American Ideals last year to advocate for military interpreters and Syrian refugees. His conviction comes from tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia where he saw what happens to civilians caught in the crossfire. He says his mission is more urgent now that the next president threatens to halt the Syrian refugee program. Cooper and 30 vets plan to visit Washington and lobby lawmakers.

Do you think this is a hard argument in a time of terrorism?

COOPER: There's two points I'd make. Those that wear the uniform care a great deal about our national security.

AMOS: His second point - most Americans have never met a refugee.

COOPER: Putting a face to that helps people understand a bit more who these people are and that they are not in fact a threat and that they are thoroughly vetted and screened.

AMOS: Cooper promotes Mohammed and Lulu's public talks.

MOHAMMED: It's, like, very refreshing to know that there is some veterans who are thinking in a very - the right way (laughter) about immigration.

AMOS: The news is always on in this tidy New Jersey apartment. Mohammed says he thought he knew America on his business trips here. He was shocked by the election threatening America's traditional open door, he says.

MOHAMMED: One of the greatest thing that United States has offered the world is her immigration policy. And now there's some people who are trying to kill what makes America great in the first place.

AMOS: He's made it to safety with Lulu, but his wife and younger daughter are still in Syria.

LULU: I don't think he can be fully happy with half of our family still back home, you know?

AMOS: Approval to get them to America, he believes, is now stalled by the campaign of fear. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Woodbridge, N.J. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.