U.S. decision to extend Syrian protections relieves one University of Iowa student

IOWA CITY — Up against an end-of-the-month deadline to decide the fate of Syrians in the United States on “temporary protected status,” the Department of Homeland Security has announced it will let thousands here under the designation stay — including one University of Iowa student.

“It’s a weight off my shoulders,” UI senior Monzer Shakally, 21, told The Gazette on Thursday after learning he’ll get to pursue his dream of a graduate degree from the UI College of Dentistry — at least for now.

“It’s been a very stressful few weeks,” said Shakally, a Syrian who has been in the United States since 2012 and on temporary protected status for most of his stay. “That I don’t have to deal with it for 18 months will be a good thing.”

Shakally, recently accepted to the college of dentistry, had worried the Trump administration would nix protections for Syria — like it has done with other countries of late — leaving him without a legal option to continue living here.

But Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen M. Nielsen has extended Syria’s current temporary protected status designation for 18 months — citing ongoing armed conflict and “extraordinary conditions” in the country. That potentially affects about 7,000 current Syrian beneficiaries through Sept. 30, 2019.

To re-register for the status, individuals must have continuously lived in the United States since Aug. 1, 2016 and have been continuously present here since Oct. 1, 2016.

Nielsen did not, however, redesignate Syria for the protection status, meaning Syrians who legally traveled to the United States after Aug. 1, 2016 are not eligible for the protection. And she stressed the administration will review conditions in Syria in 2019 to determine whether protections should be extended again or terminated.

“While we, as Syrian-American organizations, are reassured by the renewal which will allow Syrians with current TPS status to remain inside the country, we are deeply disturbed by the failure of the administration to redesignate TPS,” according to a statement from the American Relief Coalition for Syria.

That decision will prevent nearly 2,000 Syrians living in the United States without the protected status from applying for it, according to the Washington, D.C.-based group.

“This decision constitutes a break with practice, which has consistently seen both extension and re-designation every 18 months for TPS for Syria since the initial designation was made in March 2012,” the group asserted. “With the war in Syria ongoing, mass atrocities continuing, and humanitarian travesty overtaking the region, we, as Syrian American organizations, are extremely concerned that any premature repatriation of Syrians could be tantamount to a death sentence.”

Shakally, who came to the United States after being arrested and tortured as a Syrian teenager for peacefully protesting government violence and oppression, agreed that going back to Syria is not an option. Should his temporary protections end, he would fall back on his appeal for political asylum — his pathway to citizenship.

Shakally for years has been waiting for word on his asylum application and last fall learned the government intends to deny it. But he sent a rebuttal, forcing him back into limbo, and Shakally said he’s not expecting resolution on that front any time soon.

The government has changed its process to interview first folks who were under temporary protected status until recent cancellations and now are applying for asylum — including those from Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti, and El Salvador.

“They didn’t want them to wait for years,” Shakally said. “So I’m assuming my situation will take even longer now than before.”

Obtaining a student visa is difficult for Shakally because it requires a passport, which requires coordination with the Syrian government, which is out of the question. If Shakally can hang on through his four-year dental program, his options open up — through work visa programs.

The American Relief Coalition for Syria in its statement stressed many Syrians are like Shakally in that they’re “creative entrepreneurs, dedicated teachers, and hardworking employees who contribute to our country’s economy, strengthen our national fabric, and reflect positively on our diverse heritage.”

Earning temporary protection involves regular vetting and extensive background checks, according to the group. And the U.S. program has saved thousands from dire conditions — more than 500,000 Syrians have been killed, at least 5.5 million have registered as refugees, and at least 6.1 million have been displaced as a result of the conflict and violence in their country.

“Syrians forced to return prematurely to their country face a number of dire scenarios,” according to the group. “Becoming the target of barrel bombs, airstrikes, sieges, or chemical weapons attacks; being subjected to arbitrary arrest or forced conscription by Syrian authorities; or being unable to access the most basic necessities, including food, water, and medical care.”

Shakally said he hopes before another 18 months pass — bringing to a head the issue of temporary protection again — congress will figure out a larger immigration plan.

“I’m hoping some bill passes before then that addresses my situation,” he said.

For now, Shakally said, he’s relaxing. Maybe even celebrating.

“We’re trying to have a ‘Moe stays in the country party,’” he said.

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