Syrian refugees in Toledo navigate long asylum process

Published 12:12 am Sunday, January 3, 2016

TOLEDO (AP) — Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Toledo are finding the process long and difficult to navigate.

The state Department of Job and Family Services reported that 48 Syrian refugees settled in Ohio during fiscal year 2015. Lucas County took 32 of them.

Those trying to bring family members still stuck in a war zone to the city face roadblocks including backlogged systems, closed embassies and families with mixed immigration status.

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Toledo immigration attorney Ammar Alo told The Blade newspaper that some clients wait up to 2 1/2 years for asylum. It can then take an additional six months to bring a spouse or children to the United States.

According to the federal government, an asylum seeker is someone eligible for protected status and at risk of persecution based on various characteristics including race, religion and nationality.

Asylum seekers are protected from returning to their native country. Refugees are given that status before they arrive, while asylum seekers must apply while in the U.S.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reported more than 100,000 pending asylum cases in September. Alo said the agency is scheduling asylum interviews for applications that were received more than two years ago.

“Normally, you’re supposed to have an interview within 45 days and a decision shortly thereafter,” Alo said. An influx of migrants from South and Central America overwhelmed the system in 2013, he said.

“You’re dealing with people living in a war zone. You want them to be safe and get them over here but there is no fast way to bring family over.”

Ahmad Abbas, 29, is one of those seeking asylum from Syria and is trying to bring his wife as well. He lives in Toledo with his parents, who came on visas and have permanent resident cards.

He visited the U.S. in 2013 and arrived most recently in May 2014 on a tourist visa. He renewed his Syrian passport during the 2013 visit in Washington. But the Syrian embassy there has since closed and the nearest one where he can renew his expired passport is in Canada. He cannot cross the border to renew it without current identification, and cannot renew it in Saudi Arabia, where he had previously worked, because the embassy there closed there as well.

Abbas applied for asylum in November 2014. He was fingerprinted in January and, like, many others, has not had an interview scheduled.

His wife is a computer science student at the University of Damascus in Syria. He says he can hear explosions in the background when they talk.

“I tell her: ‘Stay patient. It’s OK. What’s to come will be better than what’s happening now,’ “ he said. “And she always says: ‘Thank God that you are well. Because if you were in Syria, I wouldn’t have seen you anymore.”’