HUFFPOST | When the Syrian civil war broke in 2011, he was playing professional basketball in South America — little did he know that only a year after his return back home to Syria in 2013, he’d be fleeing his war-torn country to North America.
With his asylum case still pending, 29-year-old Hozaifa Al Maleh came to the United States in 2014. Like millions of other Syrian youth he was forced to leave his country — packing up his memories and hopes for a brighter future.
“When I went back home in 2013, the war had already begun in Syria and I felt I’ve entered a different country,” said Al Maleh, explaining that he could no longer play basketball for the Syrian national team.
Al Maleh explains that tensions between Syrian opposition groups and the Pro-Assad regime forces created a “high-risk” state for him. Al Maleh saw basketball as apolitical, but the national team was identified with the Assad government, making him a possible oppression target.
“I couldn’t stay. I remember one of the players got shot in Syria — I’m thankful to God that I’m healthy and able to continue my dreams now in the States,” he said as he talked about his parents and two sisters who still live back home in Damascus.
“My dad has not left our house for almost two years and can’t work. I was at risk, but I know I have a responsibility here for my family, for Syria,” said Al Maleh.
Back in September, President Obama ordered his administration to scale up the Syrian refugee admittance to 10,000 people by the end of the fiscal year. According to State Department reports — almost six months into the fiscal year — with roughly 1,300 admitted Syrian refugees, the administration seems far behind in reaching the President’s target.
This Spring, as the Syrian conflict enters its sixth year, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that out of Syria’s drastically diminished population of now 16.6 million, there are over 13 million people in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria, while 6.6 million are internally displaced, and almost 5 million have fled the country as refugees and asylum seekers.
Amnesty International reports that Gulf countries including “Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain” have offered zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees; while Germany and Sweden remain the two European countries with the highest resettlement pledge.
In the United States, the refugee resettlement and acceptance of asylum seekers — in particular those from Muslim countries, with Syria at the forefront — has turned into a much more politicized debate.
Many Republicans, including GOP front-runner Donald Trump, have fervently opposed the acceptance of Syrian refugees into the States citing security concerns. Back in November, only days after the ISIL-claimed terrorist attacks in Paris, a growing number of U.S. governors expressed apprehension in accepting Syrian refugees — a backlash that later led Congress to pass legislation to halt Syrian refugee resettlement and overhaul the screening process.
This is while President Obama continues to be critical of such decisions, making the point that “we don’t make good decisions if it’s based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks.”
In addition, in response to fears of domestic terror attacks and other concerns, the State Department has issued statements on the complexity of the process in accepting Syrians refugees, assuring the public and law-makers of the vetting process.
Al Maleh who is now playing for the Windy City Groove team in Chicago explains that basketball and sports are empowering platforms that can enable people like him portray a truthful picture of an obscured image.
“I know I’m very lucky to be here and I’m going to do my best to not only make my family proud, but to also represent the true image of Syrians and Muslims,” said Al Maleh whose basketball career in Syria enabled him to travel the world prior to the current conflict that now still seems a long way from ending.
According to Al Maleh when he started playing basketball in Ecuador, his teammates had an inherent fear of him being Syrian and a Muslim. “In the beginning, while I was feeling welcomed in the U.S., it still was sort of the same — there was a sense of fear.” Al Maleh said, as he explained the sense of vulnerability he faced playing among people who think of him as a possible “bad actor”.
“When I left Ecuador, I was friend with every single person on the team — they were like my brothers. Every where I go, I try to reverse that false image — in the U.S. I’m now close to all my teammates — I’m proud of this,” said Al Maleh.
Al Maleh recalls the late nights he would stay up back home in Damascus to watch American basketball games, riveted to the television screen admiring NBA players.
“I always dreamt of playing for the NBA — I’m not going to give up,” the Syrian athlete said, remembering the few American basketball players he met back in Syria prior to the civil war; some of whom are now his friends.
TARA KANGARLOU ON HUFFPOST