Syrian Refugees: The Real Number


The Obama administration is letting in 10,000 Syrian refugees annually. Yet the actual total of Syrians entering the U.S. is much higher. 


By Isabel Riofrío

The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. (Photo by English: Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Flickr), via Wikimedia Commons)

The debate over incoming Syrians swirls around the additional 10,000 officially designated refugees the Obama administration plans to accept annually through 2018.

But the actual number of Syrians heading to the United States includes thousands more than those officially labeled refugees – meaning they face extra layers of uncertainty about support for their transition and their long-term future in America.

President Obama’s controversial plan to allow more Syrians to resettle in the U.S. focused on those designated as refugees – someone classified by the United Nations as a victim of war, famine or natural disaster, eligible to move to another country and receive resettlement assistance. The United States undertakes a long series of evaluations and background checks before accepting a refugee. The process can take two years. 

But U.S. officials estimate that 10,000 more Syrians are eligible to come to the U.S. under the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) visa program. A TPS designation allows migrants to seek jobs and remain in the country for a limited time – but they are not eligible for citizenship or social services, such as medical assistance. Syrians in the TPS program would be able to remain in the U.S. through September 2016, though that deadline could be extended by the Obama administration.

Still more Syrians are hoping to come to the U.S. through more traditional avenues available to immigrants, such as applying for green cards, though they wouldn’t qualify for federal-financed refugee assistance.

Syrians applying for TPS visas and green cards represent part of the larger diaspora of those displaced by the fighting. Interviews with refugees going these lesser-publicized routes offer glimpses into lives in limbo: newcomers relying on friends, family and a limited number of nonprofit groups operating with no government support to help them make their way in an unfamiliar land, amid no guarantees they’ll be able to stay.



Take the case of Ghada Mukdad, a one-time Syrian activist and mother of three sons.

Mukdad lived a relatively secure life in Al-Hasakah, a Syrian city along the Turkish border, with her husband, a doctor. In 2007, she ran for a seat in the Syrian parliament, advocating for expanded civil rights.

Ghada Mukdad and her family at her son’s high school graduation. (Photo courtesy of Ghada Mukdad)

Mukdad is one of an estimated 120,000 Syrians who fled the city. She blames the government for fostering ethnic divisions, and wishes the city could return to what it was once was — a place where people of different backgrounds could get along.

“We lived in tolerance, in love,” said Mukdad, 50.

Mukdad had traveled to the United States several times before the war, visiting family in Texas, and journeying to Southern California. She made the trips on a tourist visa. Finally, on a visit in 2012, as the war was intensifying, she decided to remain in the U.S.

In March 2012, the U.S. government placed people like Mukdad under TPS, offering her short-term respite from the war, but limiting her long-term prospects in America.

Mukdad is among 5,000 Syrians to benefit from the 2012 TPS designation, while another 5,000 individuals were expected to file an initial application during the registration period that opened up between January and July 2015, according to documents from the Federal Register (see below).

Unlike Syrians designated as refugees, there’s no government-funded services for people with a TPS visa. Some turn to a small number of nonprofit groups whose refugee efforts are not financed primarily by government contracts and grants.

That includes agencies like Wafa House Inc. in Clinton, N.J., which began a decade ago with a focus on domestic violence in the Arab community in northern New Jersey. In response to the recent arrivals of Syrians in the area, the group is expanding its mission, including helping refugees find everything from counseling to clothing, no matter how they got to the U.S.

But helping recent arrivals, especially those with extensive education and work experience, get good jobs may be the steepest challenge.

“You have to be strong enough to look over that you have a PhD or you have a law degree,” said Huma Hasan, Wafa House’s executive director. “Start from the beginning, there is nothing shameful about it. And that is what this country is about; that you are able to start from zero and you will get somewhere.”

Huma Hassan works with Syrian refugees at Wafa House, a nonprofit in New Jersey.

Huma Hassan, the executive director of Wafa House, a nonprofit based in Paterson, NJ. (Photo by Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn)

A strong education often isn’t enough for Syrian refugees to navigate the U.S. bureaucracy, leaving them to turn to groups such as the Arab American Association of New York (AAANY), which is dealing with an influx of Syrians moving primarily into Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

The nonprofit helps Syrian arrivals, regardless of whether they are officially designated refugees. Aid includes legal services for those seeking asylum, as well as English and cultural adaptation classes.

Mirna Haidar, an AAANY organizer, noted that many who arrive with temporary protected status have some savings because they have had to pay for travel to the United States and to obtain a visa. But, she added, “It’s still hard for them.”



Mukdad, in some respects, has been fortunate. She now lives in Ovilla, Texas, where locals have helped her shop for groceries and establish a banking account. Her sons are in local schools and have received constant support from their teachers and counselors.

Mukdad works hard at transitioning to life in the United States. She became involved in the community and started volunteering at a nearby Catholic church and with a Syrian refugee group.

“Life changed automatically,” Mukdad said, referring to her decision to stay in the U.S. under TPS. “You have to think you are here now.”

“This was the first step to start my new life, building my life by volunteering.”

Very few of the people she knew remained in Al-Hasakah. She finds herself trying to make sense of the turmoil. “What happened to Syria?” she asks.

At the same time, her future in the U.S. remains unclear. An end to TPS for Syrians could force her and her family to leave.

“We don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” she said.


Rasha Hamwi, 30, and her husband Amr, 34, live in Turkey but are trying to move to the U.S., where his mother became a citizen in 2014. The couple are betting that a more traditional path – getting a green card – will be their route to the U.S. and eventual citizenship.

They applied, spending about $5,000 in the process, but were rejected. They plan to try again.

Rasha Hamwi and her husband, Amr

Rasha Hamwi and her husband, Amr. (Photo courtesy of Rasha Hamwi.)

“Turkey is just a stop,” said Rasha, who works for a development agency there.

A stop among several, so far: In 2013, Rasha left Damascus and landed in Iraqi Kurdistan. That’s where she met, Amr, a Syrian who also fled there during the war. They connected on a hiking trip, soon got married in Lebanon and began planning to leave Iraq.

“We decided that one of us was going to smuggle to Europe and once there ask for the other one,” Rasha said.

But they rethought their plan, concerned the journey by sea would be too dangerous. They contacted a smuggler.

“He was kind of cheaper than others. When I talk about ‘cheaper,’ it was at that time $10,000 in 2014,” she said. “But we had no choice at that time. We wanted to spend all of our savings just to have a better chance to start again.”

She hoped to reach Sweden. Instead, she was stopped at a Turkish airport.

While the couple does not plan to remain in Turkey, they do not intend to seek refugee status through the United Nations process.

“In general, I have very low faith in the UN system,” Amr Hamwi said. “I don’t like it. It’s slow.”

Life in Turkey is okay for now, even amid a growing tide of refugees and a spate a suicide bombings. Still, the Hamwis remain on edge.

“We don’t have any place to go if the situation changes,” said Rasha.


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