Syrian refugee saw the stars and stripes - and 'felt safe'

San Diego (AFP) - On a warm afternoon in June, Ammar Kawkab and his family joined the trickle of Syrian refugees arriving in the United States to escape the devastating war in their country.

There were no crowds, television cameras or politicians to greet them at the airport in San Diego, their new home.

But that was of no concern to Kawkab, who hails from the predominantly Kurdish city of Qamishli in northeast Syria, a frequent target of attacks by the radical Islamic State (IS) group.

All that mattered was that he, his wife and their four children were finally safe after a more than two-year journey that took them from their homeland to Lebanon and finally America.

"On that day, I felt that finally I had a flag that could protect me," the 52-year-old telecom technician told AFP, fighting back tears as he pointed to an American flag hanging on a wall in the family's modest two-bedroom apartment in a suburb of San Diego.

"The day I set foot here, I felt as much American as Obama," he added. "As soon as I saw the flag, I felt safe."

Kawkab is among the 10,000 Syrian refugees the United States has taken in this year as part of a resettlement program that has emerged as a hot-button issue in the White House campaign.

While local communities across the country have offered support to the refugees, there has also been a wave of opposition, with 31 governors calling for a ban on Syrian refugees entering the country in the wake of last November's jihadist attacks in Paris.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has also seized on the issue, vowing to block refugees fleeing the violence in Syria from entering the US on grounds they were not being properly screened and posed a threat.

- 'Starting to get scared' -

Such rhetoric baffles aid officials and refugees like Sowsan Al-Zait, 45, who arrived in San Diego a year ago, fleeing the violence in her hometown of Homs, a key battleground in the uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

"After everything we went through, to have someone speak of us like this is incomprehensible," sighed Al-Zeit as she took a break on a recent morning from her English language class.

"I initially felt safe here but in recent months, to be honest, we have started getting scared."

David Murphy, head of the International Rescue Committee's branch in San Diego, where some 372 Syrians have been resettled, said the xenophobic backlash was surprising given the extensive background checks -- usually lasting two years -- the refugees undergo.

"The rhetoric is horrific, it's embarrassing," Murphy said. "These refugees are fleeing the horrors of war. They are fleeing ISIS, they are fleeing terrorists. They are not terrorists themselves."

"In many countries around the world, when you invite someone in, they are a guest. You help them. You don't bring them in to a hostile environment," he added.

- 'Shame and embarrassment' -

According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and other aid groups, nearly five million Syrians have fled their country since the conflict broke out in 2011 and some eight million have been internally displaced. The figures represent more than half of the country's pre-war population of about 23 million.

The influx of refugees has severely stretched the resources of neighboring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, which have borne the brunt of the crisis, and pressure has been building for the US and other countries to step up and take in more Syrians.

"The world looks to the United States for leadership on refugees and we are not providing it," said Mark Hetfield, who runs HIAS, which helps resettle refugees.

"The message that we should be giving to the world today is that this country was built on refugees ... and that every time this country has put limits on the number of refugees we accept, we have looked back on it with shame and embarrassment."

Aid officials said that while the 10,000 mark -- reached this week -- was positive, at least 10 times that number of refugees should be admitted in the coming year if the United States is to do its part.

"We have this very different juxtaposition here in the US where you have people all over the country responding with a welcome, and members of Congress and presidential candidates very much trying to close the doors," said Jennifer Quigley, a strategist for refugee protection with Human Rights First.

Kawkab said he hopes that with time, Americans will look upon refugees like him as individuals, each with a story to tell.

"We are neither terrorists nor criminals," he said. "And we are not here to be a burden on America. We want to give back to this country."

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