Syrian-American strives to help refugees resettle in Georgia

Asad holds his index fingers up next to each other when he talks about why he left Syria more than 15 years ago. One finger is much shorter than the other, he said, because he was arrested and tortured for speaking out against his native country’s government in the 1990’s.

Asad, who asked that his last name not be published to protect relatives still living in Syria, said intelligence agents beat him and then yanked off his fingernail with a pair of pliers. When it became infected, they cut off the tip of his right index finger. They jailed him three times, once for six months in a tiny cell.

Now a naturalized U.S. citizen living in Newnan, Asad, 50, sympathizes with the millions of refugees streaming out of Syria amid its four-year-old civil war. His own harrowing journey has led him to become something of an American “fixer” for other Syrians who have followed, helping with English lessons and jobs as well clothes, furniture and used cars.

Asad stresses he is one of a number of Syrian Americans, Christian churchgoers and refugee resettlement groups in Georgia donating time and money to help recently arrived refugees fit in. Still, in the Syrian community of metro Atlanta, he has become known as the man to see.

More recently, Asad has also been speaking out against efforts to block Muslims — including Syrian refugees — from coming to the U.S. A Sunni Muslim, Asad said he sees himself in the faces of the Syrian refugees relocating to the Atlanta area.

“I cannot let them down at all,” Asad said. “They have run through hell. They have survived. I know it. I felt it. I survived it.”

Last month, more than half of the nation’s governors — including Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal — moved to block the resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states. They say they are acting out caution to protect public safety, following the terrorist massacre that killed 130 people in Paris last month. The Islamic State — which has a stronghold in Syria — has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Deal has issued an executive order seeking to halt Syrians from coming to Georgia until the federal government bolsters its security screening process for refugees. Meanwhile, his administration has ordered state employees not to process applications for food stamps and other benefits for newly arrived Syrian refugees.

“When you have a majority of the American public having grave concerns about a specific group of refugees,” Deal told reporters this month, “the federal government owes it to the people of the country and the people of Georgia to give us more assurances than they have given us to this point.”

Following the Dec. 2 terrorist shootings in San Bernardino, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump proposed barring Muslims from coming to the U.S. The Islamic State says the attackers in California were supporters.

Asad rejects Deal and Trump’s positions, saying it makes no sense to punish all Muslims and Syrian refugees for the attacks in California and France. He said Muslims are living harmoniously in the U.S., referring to himself as an example. A native Georgian and a Christian, his wife is pregnant with their fourth child. Asad pointed at copies of the Bible and Koran sitting next to each other on the bookshelf in their den. Lit with white lights and topped with an angel figurine, a large Christmas tree sits nearby in his home. Asad employs nine people — all Christians — at his underground storage tank inspection company.

A flock of geese honked overhead and neighborhood children squealed near a pond at the edge of his backyard as Asad — sitting on the porch of his spacious house — talked about his journey to the U.S. Asad was born in Hama, where in 1982 President Hafez al-Assad — the late father of the current president, Bashar al-Assad — massacred at least 10,000 people to quell an uprising. Asad said the al-Assad regime assassinated his uncle and arrested his late father, a Syrian military officer, amid the fighting. Other relatives disappeared.

Asad said he was arrested and tortured in 1998 after he spoke out against the al-Assad government, even after he obtained a permit to publicly share his feelings. They handcuffed him, blindfolded him, beat him, broke his rib, stripped him of his clothes and threw him in a jail cell, where he lived with no sunlight for six months. During his ordeal, he lost 50 pounds and his livelihood as a mechanical engineer.

“It’s something you cannot describe at all,” he said of the pain he experienced from his torture. “It’s unbelievable. You scream, you cry. They are heartless. They are emotionless. They are not human at all.”

After his jailers finally released him, Asad fled Syria in 2000 on a tourist visa. He landed in France. A friend later helped him find a job in Ohio. He came to the U.S. on a visa, later moved to Newnan to start another job and then became a U.S. citizen in 2012.

This month, Asad helped organize a welcoming banquet for 12 Syrian refugee families — including many young children — at the Clarkston Community Center. He invited each of them onto the stage, where they were greeted with sustained applause. Asad told the audience that most of the adult male Syrian refugees there were already working and supporting their families. He is trying to help the others find jobs.

Safia Jama, a fellow Muslim who has also been helping Syrian refugees resettle in Georgia, said Asad is following his Islamic faith by helping the needy.

“I love the guy. He is great,” said Jama, who came here from Somalia as an asylee and now works at New American Pathways, an Atlanta area refugee resettlement organization. “I wish I had ten of him.”

Asad said helping the refugees makes him feel “human” after experiencing such inhumane conditions in his native country.

“Are we humans, or what are we?” he said, his eyes welling with tears. “If we are humans, we are going to do something for them.”

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