In January, Mazen Halabi bristled at President Donald Trump’s travel restrictions for Syrians, which briefly stranded his brother overseas.
Then on Thursday, the Twin Cities IT consultant learned Trump had ordered an airstrike on a Syrian airfield — the kind of unequivocal message to Syrian President Bashar Assad that Halabi and others in the local diaspora had long hoped the U.S. government would send.
“You hate to see bombs dropped anywhere in your country,” said Halabi, who grew up in the capital, Damascus, and has lived in Minnesota for more than three decades. “But we have gotten to a point where nothing else is going to deter Assad.”
For some in Minnesota’s small community of Syrian expatriates, the overnight missile strike brought emotional whiplash: After deep disappointment with Trump’s executive orders and his earlier position against intervening against Assad’s regime, they were heartened by a move they hope will rein in that regime’s brutality against civilians.
Many were still reeling from the news this week of a deadly chemical attack blamed on the Assad government, which brought gruesome photos and videos they could hardly bring themselves to watch but could not ignore. A strong U.S. response was needed, some say, even as they worry about further escalation in the fighting back home.
Local residents of Syrian descent say most Syrian-Americans are not fans of Trump’s immigration policies. In his January executive order, Trump barred Syrians from traveling to the United States for three months and Syrian refugees from resettling here indefinitely. The order and a revised version were blocked by the courts — but not before scrambling many plans.
Halabi’s brother, a green card holder and business owner who lives in Dallas, was stopped from boarding a flight home after he visited their mother in Egypt.
For Mounaf Alsamman, a Twin Cities doctor, the orders pushed back the arrival of a brother through the refugee resettlement program; the brother and his family are arriving Tuesday.
Syrian-Americans’ disappointment with U.S. policy extends back to the previous president too. Many of them — primarily professionals who have lived here since before the civil war erupted — were disappointed with what they saw as the Obama administration’s lack of response to Assad’s abuses.
“People in the community really felt President Obama was inept when it comes to this issue,” Halabi said.
They expected this week’s chemical attack would be the latest provocation to go unpunished. Alsamman said he struggled to finish watching footage of its aftermath and felt sick. For Hassan Ismail, a Twin Cities dentist and father of three, the news stirred painful memories of a barrel bomb attack on a residential neighborhood of Aleppo several years ago that killed his uncle’s four children, all under age 12.
The Assad government has insisted it was not involved in the attack, but many in the diaspora are skeptical.
When Alsamman’s wife told him Thursday she had received a news alert about the airstrike, he grabbed her phone and scrolled through the news in disbelief. “This is confusing to everybody,” he said. “This will bring a lot of support for Trump from Syrian-Americans.”
Nora Nashawaty, a Syrian-American graduate student who grew up in Minnesota, says she and her family still deplore Trump’s stance on refugees. But, she added, “You can feel grateful about this attack and still be concerned about its implications.”
Other Syrian-Americans said they hope the strike will at the least deter Assad from training chemical weapons on Syrian civilians. Some hope the U.S. government will do more, from establishing a no-fly zone over their homeland to increasing humanitarian assistance.
“I am still not a big fan of Trump, but that’s a shift in the right direction,” Ismail said. “A lot of Syrians celebrated yesterday.”