For Syrian refugees, a long, uncertain route to immigration

HARI SREENIVASAN: But first: Nearly five million Syrians have fled their homeland for relative safety in surrounding Middle Eastern countries. Some hope to emigrate to Europe and elsewhere, and undergo processing at United Nations’ centers throughout the region.

Those hoping to come to the U.S. have an uncertain future ahead of them, amid the Trump administration’s orders on immigration.

From Jordan, special correspondent Mike Cerre reports.

MIKE CERRE: The long roads for refugees hoping to settle in the U.S. and other countries start at processing centers like this one in the region run by the U.N. Refugee Agency, UNHCR.

Always a tedious and emotional process, recent changes in U.S. immigration policy added a new level of anxiety for many refugees, whose final security screenings and departure flights were abruptly canceled, while UNHCR officials could sort out the implications of the executive order.

Paul Stromberg is the deputy director of the UNHCR refugee resettlement immigration office in Jordan.

PAUL STROMBERG, UNHCR: The process doesn’t allow, really, to speed up or slow down the people who are traveling, have completed this very thorough screening process that has lasted, for each of them, between one and two years. For many families, the ones who were about to leave at the end of that very extensive process, had to be rebooked on flights.

MIKE CERRE: After six years of war, the nearly five million Syrian refugees are still living within 200 miles of their homes in neighboring countries like here in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, with fewer options of ever being able to go back, or going forward, as more Western governments start closing their immigration doors.

But as we discovered along the Turkey-Syria border, settling in the U.S. has rarely been the refugees’ first choice, for geographic and cultural reasons. Most Syrian refugees have preferred staying close to their homeland and relatives, rather than immigrating to Europe, let alone the U.S.

RHANA, Social Worker: And, also, they have Syrian coffee here, and also the trademark, it’s Syrian.

MIKE CERRE: Rhana, an English literature professor back in Syria, is now a social worker, helping her fellow Syrian refugees get food and housing. She believes many refugees’ cultural ties to the region are holding them back from going to Europe as much as the financial and legal obstacles.

RHANA: It depends on the mentality of Syrian people. For example, if they find jobs, and they could be able to afford living in Turkey, I think they will rather stay in Turkey. They don’t need to even exert effort to learn the language. And they share a lot with the Turkish people.

MIKE CERRE: With no end of the war in sight, neighboring host countries closed their borders with Syria last year. The overwhelming strain on their economies and delays in foreign aid pledges have forced them to reduce social services, prompting more Syrian and Iraqi refugees to choose the immigration route, no matter how long it takes.

PAUL STROMBERG: There are over 650,000 registered Syrians in Jordan, almost 10 percent of the population. So, many would like to go to other countries. But, first of all, those spaces have to be made available. They can’t apply for them. They don’t get in line. They don’t come here and demand anything. But through spaces made available by resettlement countries, then we will go out and check who best suits those conditions.

MIKE CERRE: The U.S. has taken far fewer Syrian refugees per capita than the other 30 resettlement countries, fewer than 18,000, compared to Canada’s nearly 40,000 and Germany’s more than 600,000. The U.S. also has an additional vetting process not required by the others.

PAUL STROMBERG: As a refugee, you are dealing with several different security agencies, different security databases, biometric registration at different checks, at different points of the process, face-to-face interviews at different points to verify what you are telling authorities.

MIKE CERRE: Refuges stay abreast of the latest immigration developments on local news channels and through regular contact with relatives and friends already in the U.S.

This Syrian Kurdish refugee family from Kobani sold the last of their family jewelry to pay the rent for their apartment in an unfinished building they are living here until they know where their future will be.

MAN (through interpreter): God’s willing, if Kobani is liberated, I will go back. I wish I can reach Kobani and die there.

MIKE CERRE: Even if the immigration ban is permanently overturned or substantially changed, it’s had a chilling effect on many refugees, who are now not sure if they still want to go to the U.S. if and when they get another chance.

For the PBS NewsHour, Mike Cerre reporting from Amman, Jordan.