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In Aftermath Of Paris Attacks, Jacksonville Syrians Speak Out

In the aftermath of the terror attacks in Paris, U.S. officials at all levels of government are questioning the country’s system for accepting Syrian refugees.

Skeptics worry allowing a proposed 10,000 resettlements could put people at risk.

But descendants of older Syrian refugees in Jacksonville want to remind locals of their community’s existing presence.

Credit Donnie Moses
A younger George Mackoul, whose grandparents came to the U.S. amid violence against Christians in Syria during the Ottoman Empire.

Joined by his wife Carol, 78-year-old George Mackoul unfurls a weathered, scroll-like panoramic picture of a packed dining hall. Around a hundred recent Syrian immigrants are pictured enjoying whiskey, cigars and traditional food at the Salaam Club in Jacksonville. Mackoul guesses it was probably taken sometime in the 1940s or 50s.

Jacksonville’s Salaam Club began in 1912 as a civil rights organization for Syrian and other Middle Eastern immigrants and descendants. But Carol Mackoul says it was about more than social justice.

“We’re used to having an extended family, and that’s what they tried to recreate for themselves, I think,  here,” Mackoul says.

The Mackouls’ grandparents were Christians who fled violence under the Ottoman Empire back when Syria and Lebanon were the same country. George Mackoul says it’s the same reason people are fleeing Syria now.

“They came here for economic reasons, for freedoms to practice their religion and for the opportunity that America gave,” Mackoul says.

The Mackouls are just two of the more than 1,300 Syrians who call Jacksonville home, according to the latest Census Bureau estimates — the fifth-largest Syrian population in the U.S. But after the massacre of more than a hundred people in Paris at the hands of ISIS last week, officials around the country are rethinking welcoming more with open arms.

Credit Donnie Moses
A group of male members of the Salaam Club in Jacksonville enjoy a community barbecue.

Jacksonville cardiologist, YazanKhatib has lived half his life in the U.S. Two years ago his brother-in-law was able to adjust his status while visiting from Syria. He’s now a permanent resident.

“He definitely fulfilled the definition of a refugee during that time,” Khatib says. “What was I supposed to do then? Just throw him away? Send him out? This is a brother-in-law with his wife and his 1-year-old son, and they’re definitely not terrorists. I can tell you that for sure.”

Khatib still has a lot of family in Syria, and he worries the recent violence will make it harder for them to find safe harbor.

But Florida Governor Rick Scott and more than half of the governors of other states say accepting more refugees puts the country at risk. Even Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry voiced concerns in a letter to Senator Marco Rubio and other congressional leaders.

“I love Syrian refugees,” Curry says. “Those that are here, welcome to our city. We want to be helpful. My statement on the Syrian refugees yesterday was about a process. The facts are someone used that process to work their way into Paris and commit an act of terrorism.”

Curry is referring to reports that a Syrian passport was found next to the body of one of the Paris attackers. But the validity of that document is questionable. The Guardian reported Serbian and Grecian officials have found evidence the passport may have been fake.

Curry and other opponents of resettlement say the process lacks security and Congress passed a measure putting resettlement on pause with a veto-proof majority, although Democratic senators say they’ll vote the bill down.

Still, Michelle Clowe of World Relief Jacksonville, a nonprofit that helps place refugees on the First Coast, says the vetting process is more than adequate.

“The vetting process takes between 18 and 24 months, and it is very thorough,” Clowe says. “World Relief has received three families this year from Syria. They’ve waited more than the 24 months to come. They’ve endured quite a lot of hardship.”

Clowe’s coworker Travis Trice says out of the 3 million people the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program has resettled, none have gone on to commit acts of terror. 

“We’re not talking about immigrants on travel or student visas or asylees,” Trice says. “This is ... about the refugee program and there, to date, has yet to be an attack on U.S. soil."

Still, according to the latest Bloomberg Politics poll, most Americans oppose taking in more Syrians and advocates understand the apprehension, but they’re imploring people to mind their history.

Specifically, George and Carol Mackoul mention when 900 Jews were rejected off the coast of Florida in 1939. Most of those people died upon returning to Europe. 

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.