The violence in Syria has increased in recent weeks – government forces pushed insurgent bands out of Damascus, the capital, and battled for Aleppo, the country’s commercial hub – and world leaders such as Kofi Annan, the recently-resigned Arab League and U.N. joint special envoy for Syria, cited inability to negotiate peace with the country’s leaders. And during these same past few weeks, the culmination of a tumultuous and fearful year and a half for Syrians everywhere, Benach Ragland client Dr. Y obtained asylum relief in the United States.
Dr. Y came to the United States in 2009 on a J-1 exchange visitor visa, to develop his medical practice and work as a physician in a hospital outside Washington, DC. His family – parents and many siblings – remained in Syria. As the situation in Syria erupted, and worsened, and the country’s fate looked to be decided by force rather than negotiation, Dr. Y considered his options.
In response to the situation in the Syria, on March 29, 2012, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that eligible Syrian nationals present in the United States might apply for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for eighteen months, in effect through September 30, 2013, which provides that those eligible Syrians would not be removed from the United States, and might request employment authorization during the duration of TPS.
Dr. Y applied for TPS, but also made a separate application for asylum relief based on a fear of persecution as an ethnic Kurd. Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, with just less than 10 percent of the population. For many decades, international and Kurdish human rights organizations have accused the Syrian government of discriminating against the Kurdish minority: in 1962, 20 percent of Syria’s Kurdish population were stripped of their Syrian citizenship following a very highly controversial census; in the intervening 50 years, the situation for Syrian Kurds has not improved. Kurds in Syria are not allowed to officially use the Kurdish language, are not allowed to register children with Kurdish names, are prohibited to start businesses that do not have Arabic names, are not permitted to build Kurdish private schools, and are prohibited from publishing books and other materials written in Kurdish. The approximately 300,000 Kurds who lack a Syrian national identification card – most often because they are not permitted to obtain one – do not have the option of legally relocating to another country because they lack passports or other internationally recognized travel documents. They cannot be employed at government agencies and state-owned enterprises; they may not legally marry Syrian citizens; they do not have the right to vote in elections or run for public office, and they cannot be awarded university degrees.
Kurdish rights activists – including Dr. Y, his siblings, and his father, a very well-known Kurdish human rights activist for decades – have long fought a losing battle, which has only intensified in the past year and a half of violence. On October 7, 2011, a friend of Dr. Y’s family and Kurdish rights leader Mashaal Tammo was killed in his apartment by masked men widely believed to be regime agents. During the funeral procession the next day in the town of Qamishli, Dr. Y’s home town, Syrian security forces fired into a crowd of more than 50,000 mourners, killing five people. Since then, Kurdish demonstrations have become a routine part of the revolution in Syria. Dr. Y’s asylum application included news articles on Mr. Tammo’s assassination, news articles about Dr. Y’s father and his involvement in the Kurdish rights movement, articles detailing the murder and “disappearance” of Syrian doctors who had returned to Syria from the U.S., and Dr. Y’s social media postings advocating Kurdish rights and denouncing the current regime.
The grant of asylum provided a secure and permanent form of relief for Dr. Y, and validated a Kurdish Syrian’s legitimate and historic fear of persecution. Other Syrians who fear returning to their home country for reasons – historic or otherwise – above and beyond the current violence and utter disintegration, should consider seeking asylum in addition to TPS.