Syrian refugees and their advocates came to Annapolis to persuade Governor Larry Hogan to accept Syrian refugees in Maryland. (Erin Cox, Baltimore Sun video)
Fadi Antar got to Baltimore last week. He arrived less than a week after the attacks in Paris — andjust days after Gov. Larry Hogan requested that the federal government stop sending his people here.
Antar and his cousin had fled the chaos in Syria, and they came to Annapolis on Monday — backed by advocates for civil rights and for refugees— asking to meet with Hogan, so they could explain why the state should accept people from the war-torn nation.
"I want to tell him that we Syrians are very good people, we're nice people — we're loving, caring people," Antar said through a translator at a news conference organized by the Syrian American Council.
"We are not any problems. We had a lot of security checks we had to get through to be allowed into the United States of America."
The attacks that killed 130 people in Paris on Nov. 13 have sparked fresh security concerns about Syrian refugees, with many lawmakers sayingthat terrorists with the self-declared Islamic Statecould sneak into the United States by posing as displaced persons fleeing persecution.
The White House, which had planned to increase the number of Syrians accepted to the United States, is now fending off calls — and legislation now before the Senate — to slow or stop the program.
The United States, the world's largest recipient of resettled refugees, has accepted relatively few Syrians. Fewer than 1,700 were admitted to the United States in the fiscal year that ended in September. Since January, 35 Syrians have been settled in Maryland, according to the State Department.
Hogan, a Republican, wrote to the Obama administration last week to ask federal officials to halt the resttlement of Syrians in Maryland until they could provide assurances that they posed no threat to the public. Top federal officials wrote back laying out the extensive set of procedures for screening refugees.
In Baltimore on Monday, Hogan said he would be happy to meet with the Syrian refugees but that his views had not changed since last week.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat, said Monday that she would welcome the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the city.
She acknowledged security concerns, but said the system of background checks, which involves several law enforcement and intelligence agencies, is sufficient.
"As we discuss security, we must rely on facts, not fall victim to baseless fears or political demagoguery," she said.
Rawlings-Blake appeared at a library in Highlandtown with staff from the Baltimore office of the International Rescue Committee, which helps resettle refugees in Maryland.
Ruben Chandrasekar, the organization's executive director, said the attacks in Paris were a taste of what Syrians have been living through for years.
"The world got a glimpse of what a terrorist organization like ISIS is capable of," he said. "But I think what many people have failed to recognize is that millions of Syrians have experienced this terrorist violence not only at the hands of ISIS in Syria but also at the hands the Assad regime."
Faced with those twin threats, about 4 million Syrians have fled the country, with hundreds of thousands heading to Europe. Another 9 million have been forced from their homes but remain in Syria.
They have contributed to the largest number of refugees worldwide since World War II.
Antar said he worked on computers, replacing hardware and software in the Syrian city of Homs before the civil war erupted. The city was besieged for three years beginning in 2011 before Syrian troops withdrew.
His cousin, Yahya Alcharabiti, settled in Baltimore six months ago and works as a handyman. Alcharabiti said they left their hometown when they could no longer hope safety or security would return.
"Before the crisis, my life was very good," hesaid. "After the crisis, it was a living hell."
Antar, his wife and sick son fled Syria empty-handed. They were smuggled through checkpoints and walked the final six miles across the border into Jordan. They lived there for three years.
Alcharabiti had made the journey with his wife and five children a month earlier.
When Antar's application to be resttled in the United States was finally approved, he again followed his cousin, this time with an infant daughter in tow and his now 6-year-old son, who is partially paralyzed from a rare nerve condition that was too expensive to treat in Jordan.
The Obama administration this year announced plans to resettle 10,000 Syrians in the coming year. After the Paris attacks, those plans could be in jeopardy.
"Turning our backs on these refugees would be going against our values as Americans," she said.
"It is more important than ever for us to respond with compassion to ensure that the United States, Maryland and Baltimore remain a beacon of hope, a beacon of freedom and opportunity for those seeking peace and protection from persecution."