A Syrian Refugee in the US Wants Americans to Understand Their Country's Vetting Process

Asmaa Albukaie, Idaho's first Syrian refugee, in her new home. Credit: Courtesy of Asmaa Albukaie

Asmaa Albukaie, Idaho's first Syrian refugee, in her new home. Credit: Courtesy of Asmaa Albukaie

This story by Jason Margolis originally appeared on PRI.org on October 20, 2016. It is republished here as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Asmaa Albukaie was married at age 14. She had two children by the time she was 15. Then she took an unusual step for a stay-at-home Syrian mom: She signed up for a university degree in library science in Damascus.

“I noticed that women in movies, American women, decide whatever they want to decide. This is not acceptable in Syria. So I made my own decision to learn and study, but I hid in the bathroom because my husband didn’t allow me to study,” said Albukaie, laughing about that now.

Albukaie told me her story in a coffee shop in downtown Boise, where we spoke for about 90 minutes. The city of Boise, the capital city of the northwestern state of Idaho, is taking in a lot of Syrian refugees: 122 so far this year. That’s more than twice as many as Los Angeles, Boston and New York combined.

Albukaie and her two teenage sons — who arrived in November 2014 — were the first Syrian refugees in Idaho.

Boise has been resettling a lot of refugees, from many nations, because of the affordable housing and need for workers in sparsely populated Idaho.

Albukaie told me a lot of details about her life in Syria, then would ask me to please not share certain parts of our discussion. She wants to protect her family that’s still in the war-torn country — it’s a learned survival defense, not to criticize anybody.

“If I spoke in a bad way, you would not see me alive here,” she said.

Here’s what she said I can share: Albukaie’s husband and her two young boys were kidnapped. She never saw her husband again. But she got her boys back then immediately left for Jordan, then Egypt, where she applied for refugee status through the United Nations.

The UN focuses on resettling its most vulnerable cases first, and she qualified as a single mother. After two years of interviews and background checks, she got a ticket for the United States.

“And then on my flight it’s written: ‘Boise, ID,’ which is Idaho, now I know. But before I didn’t know. And I Googled that,” she says.

Naturally, it was a difficult transition being the very first Syrian refugee in the entire state of Idaho.

“The hardest part? Everything,” said Albukaie. “Learning how to pay the bills, learning how to drive because I got a stick shift car. People were yelling at me in the middle of the street because my car died. They'd call me names, and crazy, and the ‘F-word’ and very bad words. I just smiled and said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m a new driver, this is the first time I’m driving.’”

Albukaie received the car as a donation. She said she didn’t drive in Syria because the buses were convenient, so a car wasn’t necessary.

Thanks in part to all those American movies she watched, Albukaie’s mastery of English quickly landed her a job as an interpreter. Then after a few months in Boise, Albukaie got hired as a resettlement officer helping other refugees arriving from nations across the globe.

She's come a long way very quickly. Last month, Albukaie was honored at the White House for her outreach work, along with seven other refugee community leaders, as part of Welcoming Week, an event run by the Welcoming America, an organization that promotes innovative ways to integrate immigrants into US communities.

Today, Albukaie says she feels like she hit the jackpot living in Idaho.

“First of all, it’s beautiful, it’s really beautiful and green. And also I have a lot of nice friends here, I’m working, and I’m safe. This is the most important thing. I left my country because I was not safe, and I came here for peace and safety,” she says.

Angry drivers aside, Albukaie says Boise has been a very welcoming community. She talks about the small details that make Boise feel that way: for instance, a Jewish family who invited her family to their home for Thanksgiving.

But that warmth is changing. Albukaie wears a hijab, and she says people have screamed at her and called her a “terrorist.” A man recently assaulted her 16-year-old son.

“He was with his friend, and this American guy asked him: ‘Are you Muslim?’ And my son said, ‘Yes, I am Muslim.’ And he punched him in his face.”

The assailant was arrested and charged under Idaho’s hate crime law.

Albukaie wouldn’t criticize any American politicians for the heightened animosity toward Muslims. She’s afraid if she says the wrong thing, that she might get deported. Legally, that can’t happen.

Albukaie spoke to me because she said she wants Americans to understand the refugee vetting process to get here. All applicants are first screened by the UN, then three US government agencies: the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Overall, the process to admit Syrian refugees generally takes 18 to 24 months, if applicants pass all the hurdles. Around 10,000 Syrian refugees have been accepted to the US over the past 12 months. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has said she’d like to increase the annual intake to 65,000.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has said we know “nothing” about the background of Syrian refugees. At the third presidential debate on Wednesday evening, Trump echoed that point again when talking to Clinton.

“[Clinton] is taking in tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who probably in many cases, not probably, who are definitely in many cases ISIS aligned. And we now have them in our country. And wait until you see, this is going to be the great Trojan Horse. And wait until you see what happens in the coming years,” said Trump.

“This is what upsets me, because I love the country, I love America,” Albukaie said. “This country is my mother. When [Trump] said Syrians are coming without any paperwork, he should see my paperwork and other people’s paperwork, it’s huge. We went through a lot of interviews, a lot of background checks … More than 10 interviews, and a lot of them were scary and not comfortable, in small rooms, no windows, like an investigation.

“Scary because they ask a lot of questions, and a lot of embarrassing questions too. Like, ‘Answer yes or no, do you want to bomb airplanes?’”

I asked Albukaie: What about the people who are scared of Muslims coming from Syria? How do you assure them that you’re not a terrorist?

“When people say ‘terrorist’ to me… when I smile and wave and say hello, their face changes from somebody that’s mad to somebody who’s welcoming, more calm,” said Albukaie. “I believe Muslim attitudes can change what American people think about Muslims.”

Albukaie recently gave a TED Talk in Moscow, Idaho, so more people can get to know a Syrian refugee.




  • Ilpalazzo

    ah good ol victim card. “All these Americans gave me this free stuff, but they hate me because I believe God calls them all liars!”

    • Jones

      The Syrian people are absolutely lovely. Visited there many times and their graciousness, warmth and innocence are quite disarming. The children are the most beautiful in the world- delightful.
      Stop listening to the zionist media on who Muslims are. ISIS=NATO, not Muslim wake up

      • Ilpalazzo

        awwww thanks for your anecdote that can’t be verified. Though your ‘most beautiful’ kinda discredits you; and then the zionophobic final sentence completely discredited it.

    • Heather Wagner

      Ilpalazzo…it is sad to me that you do not seem to feel any compassion fpr the suffering of others. There but for the grace of God…hopefully you will never find yourself in this ladies shoes.

      • Ilpalazzo

        I guess you felt bad for the Nazis too, eh?

        • Heather Wagner

          What???? What kind of equivalency is that? This woman has done nothing to you or yours, her son doesn’t deserve to be punched in the face for being Muslim any more than you for being whatever religion you prescribe. My point was compassion…google it if you are not familiar.

          • Ilpalazzo

            Obviously you don’t know jack about Islam, or that Hitler was influenced by Islam and revered Mohammed. Your ‘compassion’ is being used against you allowing you to open the doors for the wolves who have used the sheep as their cover.

          • Heather Wagner

            Buy a cabin in Alaska and lots of tin foil my friend. You are worried about the Nazis and Hitler?? So you must be voting for Hillary at least….right? As Trump is the walking embodiment of Hitler and scares the beejesus out of me. Good luck either way

          • Ilpalazzo

            Ooooh ok, so you’re an idiot. You misunderstood exactly what I said and regurgitated it through the lefty-distortion gene in your head. Tin foil? Could you be even MORE cliche and unoriginal? Nope, I said I was concerned about spreading ISLAMISM, not Nazis, only that the leader of NAZISM was influenced by Islam, so clearly Islam is dangerous juju. So you’re an idiot if you don’t think Islamism isn’t a threat and is just a ‘religion’. And nope, I won’t be voting for Hillary because she’s all for letting them in and giving them special ‘anti-blasphemy’ protection. And thanks for showing how much an idiot you truly are by saying that Trump is like Hitler, when there are absolutely ZERO similarities, whatsoever. It shows that you have limited creative thinking and that you have generalized archetypes of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. You’re an idiot, lady.

          • Heather Wagner

            Ooohhhh i think it’s your comprehension that is in question. And i could be more cliche if i tried really hard. But if you feel better calling me names(the hugest sign of intelligence…really, truly and bigly) then i just feel sorry for you. See! Compassion ;) give it a try!!

          • Ilpalazzo

            LOL i love when jellyfish like you resort to crappy memes like “Name calling means you have no intelligence!” Really, lady? That’s all you have? Some magical rules of conversation pulled out of your methed-out ass? I have zero compassion for those who would seek to allow islamism, which includes your dumb uneducated ass. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/0d916cb4702574d5591982054a47937cc978f24e0dcae2327a69e4497913c4e7.gif


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