An middle-aged man stares solemnly into camera, wearing a light blue polo shirt.
Since the day Jehad Al-Issa’s asylum application was marked as received and pending by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 2,986 days have passed. (Walter Harwood/WUFT News)

In Limbo: Syrian Man In Gainesville Has Waited Eight Years To Plead His Case For Asylum

By

Jehad Al-Issa waved his cigarette around the night air.

“You may not believe it, but I was a big man in Syria. Now look at me. Driving Uber in Gainesville, Florida.”

He, who in Syria once had two drivers of his own, had become the driver.

In Syria, he also had two maids, two bodyguards, and a six-bedroom house. He had a tribe, for whom he was once in line to be sheikh, the leader. A tribe that would send hundreds of its members to back him in a dispute against one man.

More than all of that, he had his father’s name: Abdulkarim Jamil Al-Issa. Abdulkarim had been a prominent lawyer, a socialist known for fighting on behalf of the people and refusing to bend to autocratic governments. His uncompromising morals over so many years had given his name power.

When Jehad was a child, his father told him to never be afraid of any president or king.

My name is enough for you, his father said.

And for more than 48 years, it had been.

But then Jehad, like 6.6 million other Syrians, was forced to flee his homeland. And when he landed in Gainesville in 2012 and applied for asylum shortly after, he became caught in a system in which his father’s name was not enough. It is a system that has kept him in limbo for nearly a decade without a case hearing.

In America, Jehad learned what it means to be powerless.

When silence is not for sale

A black-and white, crinkled photo shows a baby wearing winter clothes, a scarf and hood snug around his smiling face.
Jehad was born into a powerful family in Syria. But in America, his father’s name can no longer help him. (Courtesy of Jehad Al-Issa)

Jehad’s childhood in Aleppo in the 1960s and ‘70s was, in some ways, like that of many Americans.

He would play sports in the street with the neighborhood kids for hours after school. Right as the light was draining from the sky he’d vault over the garden fence — you never use the front door, his mother would say — and arrive just in time for dinner: olives, cheese, boiled eggs, salad and hot tea. He was allowed to watch one movie until his 9 p.m. bedtime.

But, Jehad says, he was destined for power.

His father’s father was the sheikh of the Busha’ban, one of Syria’s most prominent tribes. His mother’s father was mukhtar, the elected representative of his village.

His uncle was a companion and guard of Amin al-Hafiz, the president of Syria from 1963 to 1966. 

And then there was Jehad’s father, Abdulkarim Al-Issa. Abdulkarim’s family says his stern appearance belied his soft heart.

As a Syrian lawyer in 1960, Abdulkarim was rare. Even rarer was his willingness to speak against what he saw as an increasingly corrupt government.

Jehad’s case for asylum, as presented in his application, rests in large part on his description of the Al-Issa family’s vocal opposition to the Syrian government.

Jehad says when Abdulkarim joined the Ba’ath party in 1958, he believed it would allow him to help people and fight against inequality. The injustices Abdulkarim witnessed over the next few years, as two factions with differing values began to develop within the party, changed his mind.

Abdulkarim and his brother were imprisoned after a coup within the party ousted al-Hafiz from power in 1966 (though Jehad’s asylum application incorrectly states they were imprisoned for helping organize the coup). But after being released months later, Abdulkarim continued his opposition efforts.

Being jailed again in 1970 did not deter him. He openly criticized the unannounced raids by the intelligence service, insisting the government needed legal permission to search citizens’ homes.

In 1980, at a conference of lawyers, he grabbed the microphone and critiqued Assad. For this he was imprisoned yet again for nearly a year. But he would continue to vocally oppose the government.

Abdulkarim’s granddaughter and Jehad’s niece, Joudi Ayroud, describes Abdulkarim as the government’s worst nightmare.

“Syria is not like the West,” Joudi said. “There is no freedom of speech. You have to measure every word you say.”

But the one man who spoke his mind fully, Joudi said, was her grandfather.

“He wasn’t fearing consequences.”

A young woman, in a sweatshirt with the outline of Syria on it, stares down at a photograph she is holding of an older man in a suit and tie and glasses. Her nightstand is next to her.
Today, at 23, Joudi Ayroud keeps her grandfather’s portrait on her nightstand in Gainesville as a reminder of who she wants to be. (Walter Harwood/WUFT News)

On March 19, 2004 — exactly one year after the U.S. invasion of Iraq — Abdulkarim was making the drive from Aleppo to the countryside to solve a problem in his tribe.

It was a Friday, normally a holiday from work when the family would gather and play games, but Joudi remembers this as typical of Abdulkarim; the only thing that would take him from his family was helping his tribe.

Before he could reach his village, an officer in the Syrian army, driving his personal car, collided with Abdulkarim’s car and killed him.

A drunken accident, the government said.

Or an assassination? The family still wonders.

But Joudi clings to this: “Whether the death was set up or not, he died doing what he’d always done since the day he was born: helping people.”

Joudi was 6 that day. Today, at 23, she keeps her grandfather’s portrait on her nightstand in Gainesville. A reminder of who she wants to be.

As Santa Fe College’s 2020-2021 student body president, she lobbied for scholarships for international students like herself and stood with the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I’m doing what he always taught us to do — to serve, to move with passion, to care about the people around us.”

She said whenever she sees underrepresented groups, she knows her grandfather would have advocated for them, so she does, too.

Abdulkarim had taught his family to always put people before government. And never bend.

It’s why Jehad stayed in Syria even as war erupted. And it’s why, in the end, he had to flee.

Jehad Al-Issa with his wife, Hala Al-Affas, and their sons, Mustafa (left) and Abdulkarim (right). They named Abdulkarim after Jehad’s father. (Courtesy of Jehad Al-Issa)

Counting missiles

Before the Arab Spring reached Syria, Jehad could smell unrest in the air. By then, he was married with two teenage sons.

His extended family had already dispersed to the United States, Qatar and elsewhere. Syrians were preparing for chaos, moving their money out of the country.

Civil war ignited in Syria in March 2011.

In a series of what he believes were “coincidences of God” — small miracles — over that year and the next, his wife, his sons, and finally Jehad himself obtained U.S. tourist visas. God was drawing their destiny, Jehad now says. But he did not want the family to abandon their homeland. He dug his heels into Syrian soil.

In May 2012, the notorious Mukhabarat, or Syrian intelligence service, visited Jehad to confront him about his sons’ participation in demonstrations against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. For their safety, Jehad sent his sons to stay with their uncle in Qatar.

Months later, Jehad’s wife boarded the last flight out of the Aleppo airport before it shut down and made her way to Gainesville, where over the years Jehad’s brothers had bought property, gone to school and raised children.

Jehad stayed in Syria, alone.

As the bloody war raged, he and the few neighbors who remained were trapped in one city block of Aleppo, hemmed in by fighting, blockades and wreckage. There was no more electricity. Water was in short supply.

The Battle of Aleppo would become known as “Syria’s Stalingrad” for its sheer scale of destruction and widespread violence against civilians.

Jehad would stay up at night and count the missiles that rained down: 1, 2, 3 . . . 64, 65 . . . By Jehad’s estimate, they were fired the distance from Gainesville to Newberry. 

He started noticing trucks and strange men following him when he would go to the cafe. Jehad mentioned this to his friend Matin Tabbash.

You haven’t heard? Matin asked, and sent Jehad a video of Jehad’s cousin declaring war against the regime and naming his newly formed rebel battalion after Jehad’s father.

What have you done, Jehad thought.

In the end, the Mukhabarat approached Jehad. Surely, they said, you want to go on TV and voice your support for al-Assad, don’t you?

If he refused, he would certainly be jailed or worse, killed. But Jehad’s father had taught him to always speak his mind. His silence was not for sale.

He began to plot his escape.

‘Are you escaping?’

Matin and his family had been planning to leave two months later, but agreed to an early escape that summer, in order to take Jehad with them. They pretended they were one family and hired a taxi to drive them to Turkey.

Jehad Al-Issa and his wife Hala Al-Affas dine in a restaurant in pre-war Aleppo with their friends, Matin Tabbasch and his wife, Reem Alibeck. Matin says part of the reason it is not safe for him to return to Syria under the current government is his friendship with Jehad. (Courtesy of Jehad Al-Issa)

The taxi driver was supposed to take them the long way, around the government checkpoints, but the driver insisted he could bribe the officers if they paid him five times the agreed-upon fare.

A few miles north of Aleppo, they hit the first checkpoint. The officer took only Jehad’s ID.

Your father was a lawyer? the officer asked.

Yes, Jehad said.

Are you escaping?

No, sir, just going to Turkey for a few days.

No, the officer said. You are escaping. But go ahead.

The officer took the bribe.

At the border with Turkey, Jehad remembers seeing soldiers of the Islamic State; crossing over did not mark safety for him. He feared the Syrian government would send someone to assassinate him.

He made his way to Dubai and from there flew to the U.S. on the tourist visa he believes was a part of God’s plan.

It wasn’t until he touched American soil on Sept. 10, 2012, that the fear left him. But that’s also when a new sort of trouble began.

‘In limbo’

“Just setting foot in America cost me $60,000,” Jehad says, adding up the costs of the flight, the car he bought upon arrival, the fees for him to apply for a student visa and attend the English Language Institute at the University of Florida, and the fees to his lawyer, Robert Jacobs, whom he hired that month.

At first, Jehad’s family didn’t intend to stay in America. Most Syrians, Jehad says, thought the situation in their country was temporary, and they’d soon be able to return to Syria. Jacobs helped Jehad obtain a student status for the spring semester.

But as the conflict in Syria worsened, it became clear they would not be able to return to Syria when the semester ended, and Jacobs counseled Jehad to apply for asylum.

Jehad’s case seemed exactly what asylum was designed to accommodate. His entire extended family, well-known to the Ba’ath party for their opposition, had been forced to flee Syria. Even Matin was at risk because of his connection to Jehad. Jehad had every reason to believe returning to Syria would mean death.

A friend of Jehad’s sent him this video surveying the destruction to Jehad’s farmhouse and olive trees. Jehad says his farmhouse was targeted and bombed, the fence destroyed, and some olive trees cut down in retaliation for his family’s vocal opposition to the regime. (Courtesy of Jehad Al-Issa)

They expected Jehad to get a case hearing in about six months and to receive a green card in about a year.

But months came and went with no update on his case, other than a notice that the immigration office in Miami had received his application on April 15, 2013.

His student status coming to an end, he filed for Temporary Protected Status for himself, his wife, and his sons, who were now in Gainesville also hoping for asylum. The United States grants that status to people from certain countries affected by war or natural disaster and allows them to live and work here for a limited time. When the status ends, if no other status has been obtained and the person stays in the country, the government may attempt deportation.

In 2014, Jacobs sold his law firm and handed over Jehad’s case file to the buyer. The new lawyer consulted with Jehad and taught him a new phrase, which applied to his case: “in limbo.”

Jehad visits the immigration office in Miami every year to check on his case, but the employees he speaks to never have an update for him. They tell him there are not enough agents.

Since the date Jehad’s application was marked as received, 2,986 days have passed.

How could this happen?

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services does not comment on individual cases, citing privacy concerns.

Jacobs’ best guess is that Jehad’s case was taking longer — cases from Muslim countries were often held up after 9/11, and Jehad may have just been unlucky and under extended security scrutiny. Then in 2016, Donald Trump was elected president and instituted changes to immigration policy. That, Jacobs says, threw an already belabored system into chaos.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association published an analysis of USCIS data in January 2019 that found “crisis-level delays in the agency’s processing of applications and petitions for immigration benefits under the Trump administration.” Jehad’s form type is not included in the published data that was used for the analysis, but overall USCIS case processing time had surged by 46%.

The analysis cited a net backlog of more than 2.3 million delayed cases at the end of the 2017 fiscal year — a more than 100% increase in one year despite an only 4% rise in case receipts.

A USCIS spokesperson said the rising number of cases needing screening at the border with Mexico diverted the majority of available asylum officers, which contributed to the backlog of asylum cases. The agency has increased the number of asylum officer positions, but the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in even further delays.

USCIS is opening a new asylum office in Tampa to alleviate the backlog and redistribute the workload from the Miami office.

In  2018, USCIS switched back to a last-in-first-out system: prioritizing the most recently filed asylum cases first and working backward through applications. The aim was to deter people from filing unwarranted asylum claims to obtain work authorization, which had ballooned the number of applications since the agency adopted a first-in-first-out system in 2014. As a result, Jehad’s case would now be in the lowest priority tier, ostensibly waiting behind every asylum application filed since April 15, 2013.

Under three different U.S. presidents — Joseph Biden, Donald Trump, and Barack Obama — Jehad has waited for a case hearing.

Refugees and asylum seekers go through different immigration processes. Still, years into his waiting, something on the news captured Jehad’s attention: The first wave of Syrian refugees to arrive in Canada were welcomed in 2015 at the airport by then newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, given blankets, snow boots and welcome gifts, and left the terminal as permanent residents of Canada with social insurance numbers and health cards.

Jehad has never forgotten this.

‘Just tell me, please’

Of course, Jehad would need to pay the new lawyer to work on his case. But Jehad was tired of paying fees and seeing no progress. He refused the new firm’s help.

Jehad, like many Syrians, had brought much of his money with him when he left Syria — more than half a million dollars. Nearly nine years of waiting and supporting his family drained that sum. He says his debt now far outweighs the money in his accounts.

A man and woman sit close and smiling on a couch in a warmly lit room. An ornate frame hangs behind their head and an embroidered pillow sits on the couch.
Jehad sits with his wife, Hala Al-Affas, in their home in Gainesville. Hala says while adjusting to America was hard at first, she has found people friendly and patient, and is grateful that her sons have both attended college here. (Walter Harwood/WUFT News)

His despair grew. Twice, he thought he was having a heart attack and says he went to the UF Health Shands’ emergency room, but the nurse told him it was depression and anxiety — more terms he says he didn’t know before coming to America.

“I was always singing, dancing, laughing before. This was new for me.”

Yes or no, he just wants an answer from America. If yes, he will create a trade business and start his life here. 

If they tell him no, he figures he will return to Syria to die. He is too exhausted to try again, to start over in another country.

“Just give me a hearing,” Jehad says. “Yes or no, just tell me, please.”

On his friend’s recommendation, Jehad took up Uber and Lyft driving to get to know his way around Gainesville, meet new people and lift his spirits. He and his wife also worked as sales associates at Dillard’s for a time.

At first, he admits, he felt ashamed to be a driver, thinking of who he used to be in Syria and the drivers he himself used to command.

But then, one day, a passenger asked him: Are you sad because you drive Uber? The passenger said he was an American all right, but with no car, no job, a DUI and no license.

“This helped a lot,” Jehad says. “It put it in perspective. Made me not forget who I am. Now I see the homeless here, and I thank God for what I have.”

Jehad says despite the challenges he faces as someone without a permanent status here, he has discovered a love for America. He is grateful that the country has kept him safe and healthy, and that his wife has become happy here, too.

“Happy wife, happy life.”

Jehad and Hala are proud of their sons — of Mustafa, who earned a degree in civil engineering from the University of Florida, and Abdulkarim, who will soon graduate from the University of North Florida with a degree in construction management.

They hope their sons will be able to stay and use their degrees to contribute to the country that has given their family a lot, even if it has not yet given them residency.

Pep talks

In 2021, Jehad has new reasons to hope.

Jehad holds prayer beads that were with his father, Abdulkarim Al-Issa, when he died. Pulled from the car wreckage, they are one of the only items from Syria that Jehad has with him. (Walter Harwood/WUFT News)

The Biden administration has renewed Temporary Protected Status for Syrians until September 2022. That buys more time for Jehad.

In March, the House of Representatives approved the American Dream and Promise Act of 2021, which would create a pathway to citizenship for roughly 2.5 million people, including Temporary Protected Status holders, undocumented youth, and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival recipients.

In the Senate, Temporary Protected Status — which is currently applied to more than 300,000 people in the U.S. — is being considered separately from these other categories under the SECURE Act.

Though the American Dream and Promise Act is backed by President Biden, immigration legislation has historically been difficult to pass through both chambers. Various versions of Dream Act legislation have been introduced to Congress for the past 20 years, none of which succeeded.

But for Jehad and his family, passing the legislation could mean an end to their eight-year limbo. With no word about when he will be able to plead his case, he considers this his best chance.

Meanwhile, the protracted war in his homeland continues. But for Syria, too, Jehad holds hope. He gives himself pep talks when he feels low. He returns to one in particular, again and again:

“This situation will change one day,” he says. “Even Pharaoh died.”

For now, Jehad must wait. And while he does, he stays true to what his father taught him. He refuses to be silent.

About Katie Hyson

Katie Hyson is a Report for America Corps Member at WUFT News covering racial and rural inequities in East Gainesville and north central Florida. She can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org. Click here to learn how you can support her reporting.

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