By Taniel Koushakjian
FLArmenians Managing Editor
Yesterday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 289-137 to adopt H.R. 4038, the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act of 2015, a bill that would pause the federal government’s current resettlement program for refugees from Syria and Iraq.
The bill requires the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), Director of National Intelligence (DNI), and Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to perform background checks and sign off that each refugee “is not a threat to the security of the United States.”
The current policy only requires the DHS to perform background checks and takes 18-24 months to complete. The additional security checks would prolong the current process. All refugees seeking resettlement in the U.S. are first registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and those eligible are reported to DHS to begin the process.
The legislation comes on the heels of the November 13th terrorist attack in Paris, France that left 129 dead. At least one of the Paris attackers is known to have travelled from Syria to Europe through Greece, the route used by millions of migrants fleeing the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) in Syria and Iraq.
The House vote is a rebuke to President Obama, who threatened on Wednesday to veto the legislation. The additional security measures are “unnecessary and impractical,” the White House said. “Given the lives at stake and the critical importance to our partners in the Middle East and Europe of American leadership in addressing the Syrian refugee crisis, if the president were presented with H.R. 4038, he would veto the bill.”
47 Democrats joined 242 Republicans, giving House lawmakers a veto-proof majority they hope will force the President’s hand on the issue.
In Florida, 19 of the state’s 27 Representatives voted in favor of the tougher measures, with two Democrats joining Florida’s entire Republican delegation in support of the bill.
Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-FL), a candidate for U.S. Senate in 2016, voted in favor of the SAFE Act. He released the following statement after the vote: “I am deeply disappointed how divisive this debate has become. Homeland security should never be partisan and our number one priority is to always keep the American people safe. With new security considerations following the tragic and cowardly attacks in Paris last week, we must ensure that we have the strongest safeguards to certify refugees are not a threat to homeland security. This bill ensures that our entire intelligence community is on the same page without turning our backs on those fleeing violence and terror. We must put aside partisan differences to develop a comprehensive strategy that combats the threat ISIS poses to people who love freedom everywhere.”
Meanwhile, Murphy’s opponent for U.S. Senate, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) voted against the bill. Murphy “chose fear over humanity when he voted against Syrian refugees,” Grayson posted on Twitter.
Rep. Gwen Graham (D-FL) is the other Florida Democrat to break ranks, stating “As the granddaughter of a Christian who came to America after fleeing religious violence, I do believe we have a role in helping peace-seeking refugees — but in light of new threats, we must strengthen our vetting process. We must be able to identify those who wish to do us harm, while continuing to offer a safe haven to those in need of refuge from war and persecution.”
Graham represents a swing district in northern Florida and narrowly won election in 2014. Her seat is expected to become safe-Republican after the Florida Supreme Court completes the redistricting process before the end of the year.
“As elected officials, we have the responsibility to do everything we can to protect our nation,” stated Armenian Caucus Vice Chair Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL). “The SAFE Act puts in place a robust, extensive vetting and monitoring process to identify individuals who pose a security threat. It fulfills our promise to the American people that we are working diligently to prevent terrorists from reaching our shores.”
ARMENIAN AMERICANS REACT
For Armenian Americans, the issue tugs at the heartstrings as images and stories of those fleeing the violence emerge. Following the World War I Armenian Genocide, Christian Armenian orphans and other survivors were accepted into Syrian society and over the last century developed into a critical part of Syria’s multi-cultural mosaic. Some 180,000 Armenian Christians used to call Aleppo home up until a few years ago when they were driven out by ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.
“I fully support the resettlement of Syrian refugees, irrespective of their ethno-religious affiliation, in the U.S.,” stated Sarkis Balkhian, Advocacy Director for the Aleppo Compatriotic Charitable Organization, who is himself an Armenian American citizen from Aleppo. “During the 4.5 years of the Syrian conflict, the United States has resettled approximately 2,000 Syrian refugees out of a total of 4.3 million. That’s a comical number,” Balkhian said. “But yesterday’s vote confirmed that 289 Representatives are oblivious about the U.S. resettlement program and the vigorous vetting process already in place. What’s worse is that it appears they have succumbed to fear and are punishing the victims of ISIS rather than ISIS itself.”
Yet, Armenian Americans seem to be equally concerned about the potential influx of radical extremists who seek to harm us and destroy our way of life.
“I am wholeheartedly opposed to our government’s current plan to bring refugees from Syria and Iraq to the United States,” stated Ani Tramblian, an Armenian American from Annandale, Virginia. “I use the term bringing, because we are literally bringing them here, using American taxpayer dollars. Our President is putting U.S. citizens in harms way and exposing us to unnecessary risk. The House was right to pause the current process and add tougher security measures especially in light of terrorist attacks in Paris, and I hope our President takes our Congress seriously,” she said.
On Wednesday night, Florida Armenians launched an online poll, admittedly unscientific. At the time of this writing, the poll finds 51% of Armenian Americans in support of accepting 10,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees as currently planned. 35% of Armenian Americans oppose accepting refugees from Syria and Iraq, while 13% agree with the House measure and support a pause in the current resettlement program, according to the Florida Armenians poll.
The Florida Armenians poll on Syria refugees will close on Friday at midnight.
Petition Launched on White House Website Calling on Government of Turkey to Open Border with Armenia for Syrian Refugees
By Taniel Koushakjian
FLArmenians Political Contributor
Over the course of the last week, an Internet petition launched on the White House website has stirred emotions and reignited the debate surrounding Turkey’s nearly 20-year blockade of Armenia. In September 2011, the Obama administration launched “We the People” an online platform whereby American citizens can petition their government, a right enshrined in the First Amendment of US Constitution. According to the terms, a petition must reach 25,000 signatures within 30 days of its launch in order for it to receive a response from the administration. On January 15, the White House raised the signature threshold to 100,000 signatures. However, the new requirement applies only to new petitions and does not affect this petition.
The petition says that “There are 200,000 ethnic Armenians living in Syria and most of them want to escape to Armenia where they can feel safe, comfortable, find a job, a place to live and go to schools” and that the “road from Syria to Armenia goes through Turkey which closed its border with Armenia in 1993.” It concludes, “There shouldn’t be closed borders in the 21-st century.”
The petition was launched on January 5 and, as of this writing, has garnered over 500 signatures, five of which hail from Florida. The petition was initiated by Heritage Party activist Daniel Ioannisian in Armenia, ArmeniaNow first reported. There is no stipulation that the petition organizer be a US citizen, according to the Terms of Participation of the “We the People” platform.
According to the ArmeniaNow report, Petros Gasparian, who fled to Armenia amid intense fighting in the Syrian city of Aleppo, welcomes the initiative. He says that many want to drive to Armenia, but avoid the long travel through Georgia, which is also complicated by the need to get an extra visa and other difficulties.
“The road is very long and unfamiliar, while it’s only half a day’s drive from Aleppo to Yerevan [it takes about 35 hours to reach Armenia from Aleppo by way of Georgia]. That would be easy to all of us, but I’m not sure Turkey would display such an attitude,” Gasparian told ArmeniaNow.
Syria’s largest city, Aleppo is home to 80,000 ethnic Armenians, most descendants of survivors of the 1915 Turkish genocide of Christian Armenians. Today, thousands of Armenians have fled Syria, many seeking refuge in Armenia. According to immigration officials in Yerevan over 6,000 Syrian-Armenians have applied for citizenship in Armenia.
As Turkey’s failed policy to blockade Christian Armenia enters its second decade, the remnants of the Soviet Union continue to linger in the South Caucasus as the last iron curtain hangs over this remote but volatile region. Support for Armenian-Turkish rapprochement reached an all time high in 2009 when Armenia and Turkey signed Protocols to establish diplomatic relations. However, the accords stalled in the Turkish parliament and still await ratification.
Others hope, however, that modern-day Turkey can play a leadership role in the region and in the Syrian conflict in particular. Perhaps in all of the turmoil in the Middle East the Turkish government can display such leadership and open the border with Armenia, at least for refugees. Although a relatively small step in this context, it has the potential to move the ball forward in a larger one: Armenian-Turkish relations. When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Armenia in July 2010, she was asked about the state of Armenian-Turkish relations and the next step in the process. She replied, “The ball is in the other [Turkey’s] court.”
Taniel Koushakjian is an independent political commentator for Florida Armenians. He received his bachelor’s degree in political science from Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida, and is currently enrolled at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @Taniel_Shant.
*This story was updated on January 16, 2013.
FLArmenians invite you to come and show your support and contribute to the Florida Syrian Armenian Relief Fund. There are over 100,000 Armenians affected by the deteriorating security situation in Syria, particularly in Aleppo. Our Armenian brothers and sisters have been forced to leave their homes, businesses, schools, and are unable to access basic supplies such as food, clean water and medicine.
The Florida Syrian Armenian Relief Fund Committee, in coordination with the Armenian Apostolic Church of America, A.R.F., A.R.S., Homenetmen, and FLArmenians has organized an informative meeting and fundraiser on Sunday, October 28th at 2:00 PM.
Please help us send as much assistance to the Armenian-Syrian community as possible.
This event is open to the public with a requested donation of $20 per person. A nice lunch, soft drink, dessert and coffee will be served to participants.
In this time of crisis, we hope you can take the time to learn about the dire situation Armenians face in the battle for Syria, and do something to help our Christian brothers and sisters.
WHAT: Florida Syrian Armenian Relief Committee Fundraiser
WHERE: Hye Getron, 601 Clint Moore Road, Boca Raton, Florida 33487
WHEN: Sunday, October 28th at 2:00 PM
WHY: Help Armenians in Syria Survive!
For more information please call Mary Andonian at (561) 703-4614 or Vahram Danielian at (561) 346-6851.