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Michigan Syrians take risks to help refugees

Kate Wells
Michigan Radio

Members of Michigan’s Syrian community are stepping up to help refugees fleeing the bloody conflict in that country.

Some lawyers in particular are helping Syrians seeking “temporary protected status” or political asylum in the United States.

In March, the Obama administration created a new policy allowing Syrians who had been living “continuously” in the United States to seek temporary protected status. Syria is one of only eight countries granted that status.

But Syrians who fled to the US after March are left seeking political asylum—which can be a very difficult process.

But some have been successful—including a Syrian physician now living in Michigan, said Lena Masri, a Syrian-American attorney with the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Masri said that doctor had been targeted by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government because he helped run underground hospitals to care for the wounded.

“He was arrested, and severely tortured for over a month,” Masri said. “And as soon as he was released, he did flee here to Michigan.”

US Citizenship and Immigration services has accepted 1970 petitions for temporary protected status from Syrian citizens since the program launched, according to a department spokeswoman.

359 Syrian nationals had applied for political asylum from October 2011-June 30, 2012. 67% of those have been approved. Michigan-specific statistics were not immediately available.

Masri said Michigan’s Syrian community, one of the nation’s largest, has become much more politically active since the conflict began there early last year. But that activism can expose family members in Syria to serious danger.

Masri cited a recent case when a man from a “prominent Syrian family” in the Flint area attended an anti-Assad regime rally in Washington, DC.

“As a result of his presence there, his brother was severely tortured in Syria, questioned about him, and then killed,” Masri said.

“Unfortunately, that’s not a unique case. It’s very common.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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