New Jersey Mayor Risks His Life Delivering Aid to Syria - Unlike Tough Guy Chris Christie, He's Not Scared of 5-Yr-Olds
In the wake of the recent terror attacks in Paris, New Jersey governor and 2016 presidential hopeful Chris Christie announced he would block any Syrian refugees from resettling in his state. Citing unspecified threats, Christie said even Syrian orphans under the age of five are unwelcome.
One New Jersey mayor has publicly rebuked Christie's xenophobic attitude, and his opinion is especially valid given he knows quite a bit about the immigrant experience and standing up to ISIS.
Mohamed T. Khairullah was born in Aleppo, Syria before his family fled to Saudi Arabia to escape violence, eventually settling in New Jersey. Khairullah embraced his new American identity. “I found it to be difficult, obviously, because of the lack of an ability to communicate well and lack of understanding of the culture. But my community was welcoming and had a large percentage of middle easterners. The citizens of Prospect Park are very familiar with Middle Eastern culture, whether it be Christians or Muslims.”
This sense of community and openness helped Khairullah integrate so well that he eventually ran for mayor of Prospect Park. Now in his third term, the mayor has never forgotten where he came from and has been to Syria six times since the war started, delivering aid with American NGOs. One of the NGOs Khairullah has traveled with includes the Syrian American Medical Society, which has suffered frequent ISIS attacks that have killed SAMS-trained doctors. Khairullah remembers with pride how people in his home city of Aleppo stood up to the regime and to ISIS.
“We’ve lost a lot of Syrian activists to the crimes of ISIS," he says. "Aleppo was at one point overtaken by them, and I happened to be there in the winter of 2013 when they were carrying out kidnappings and killings of many activists who would speak against them or who wouldn’t adhere to their rules. Fortunately, a few days after I left Aleppo, the rebels were able to push them out of the area and they went further east towards Raqqa.”
Khairullah believes he is living the American dream by serving as a U.S. mayor while helping activists and aid workers back in Syria who are risking their lives to resist ISIS and Assad. He finds Christie’s comments about refugees distasteful. “I was appalled by the governor’s statement, especially when he demonstrated such a lack of any empathy towards the situation. He said he wouldn’t even allow a five-year-old to enter the U.S. To me that’s to label all Syrians as terrorists. To assume this five-year-old is going to grow to be a terrorist is just unbelievable from a man who is seeking to occupy the highest elected position in the U.S.”
Khairullah thinks Christie is also giving New Jersey a bad name. “We are good people," Khairullah says. He loves New Jersey for its warm and welcoming citizens and likes to point out the diverse history of Prospect Park, which was "founded by the Dutch community in 1901. Middle Easterners started moving here in the '70s. The first wave of immigrants was the Circassian community from Syria and Jordan and following that others came. Now...it's 40% Hispanic and 10-15% Arabic—and by Arabic I mean Christians and Muslims. Prospect Park is also about 10-15% African American and about 30% Caucasian. It's a very diverse community. We are about 7,000 people. We have a small community. Everyone knows each other and everyone cares about each other.”
The Propect Park mayor has no hesitations about the need to defeat ISIS and he emphasizes his belief that Islam does not promote violence. "Unfortunately there are people who understand the religion differently. I urge anyone with knowledge of anyone who thinks of such heinous acts to report them to authorities. By doing so we are not betraying each other; rather we are doing what is right for the people who accepted us as people from the Middle East and as American citizens doing what’s right by our country.”
He suggests that a concerted effort is necessary to bring peace to Syria.
“What the presidential candidates need to do, and frankly what President Obama needs to do, is to help the Syrian coalition get its act together, get rid of Assad, and bring real democracy to Syria. Bringing democracy to Syria is like turning a light on in a dark room. The darkness of ISIS will disappear.”
Mayor Khairullah refuses to let the threat of ISIS kidnapping discourage his humanitarian work on the ground, and he isn’t going to let Christie’s rhetoric discourage his advocacy for refugees. He emphasizes the need to help others endure difficult times. “It's definitely not something that should be ignored by the rest of us. These people live in very tough conditions come summer, come winter. They need the attention of the world.”
When it comes to Syrians living in the U.S., Khairullah suggests Americans take a step back and think before letting prejudice cloud their minds. “If Americans want to find out what Syrians are like, they need to look around and look at their doctors, engineers, business people, police officers, and teachers who are Syrian or are of Syrian descent. There are many Syrians who are in New Jersey whether we know them by name because they still have Arabic names or those who are assimilated and came in decades ago. Syrians are hard-working people who add value to wherever they go.”
Mayor Khairullah also hopes to dispel unfair stereotypes about New Jersey. “There are stereotypes that we are rude or aggressive, but we're really nice people. We’ve got a lot of places we gotta go, and we gotta get there quickly.”