A Syrian Lands In The U.S. For An Award, Only To Be Turned Back | KERA News

A Syrian Lands In The U.S. For An Award, Only To Be Turned Back

Apr 21, 2016
Originally published on April 21, 2016 11:09 pm

Raed Saleh, a Syrian national, landed at Dulles International Airport outside Washington on Monday afternoon after an 11-hour journey from Turkey. In his passport was a visa for the U.S.

He was planning to attend a Tuesday evening banquet in the capital where he was being honored for his rescue work in Syria. But as Saleh tried to make his way through immigration, he says, he was pulled aside by security at the airport.

"After about two or three hours, they told me, 'We apologize but you must return to Turkey because this visa has been canceled. It's not valid.' I told them, 'How isn't it valid? It's good for six months.' "

Saleh says the immigration official could not tell him why he was being turned back.

"He told me, 'I don't have any explanation or details. I can't tell you anything,' " according to Saleh, who spoke to NPR via Skype. He was in Geneva, on his way back to Turkey.

Saleh had to head back without the award he was to receive from InterAction, an alliance of international humanitarian and aid agencies.

Saleh heads up Syria Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, a collection of 2,800 volunteer rescue workers who help victims caught up in the war.

"Their group really responds when buildings have been damaged from bombings or other kind of strikes and they go in and they pull people out of the rubble," says Nancy Wilson, the head of Relief International, which nominated Saleh for the award.

Wilson says the awards dinner carried on without Saleh — but many in the audience honored him by wearing white helmets, the trademark of his group.

Wilson says she's surprised Saleh wasn't allowed into the U.S.

"He has been to the United States before, spoken at the U.N. Security Council, was allowed on the plane — which is not an easy thing in Turkey to begin with because they scrutinize your visa papers there," she says. "And then for him to get here, and then not be able to actually be allowed in the country is just very disappointing."

The still-unanswered question is why Saleh was turned back.

The Department of Homeland Security issued a statement saying a number of U.S. agencies have a say in determining whether someone can enter the country. They include the State Department and law enforcement agencies.

The keynote speaker at the dinner was Gayle Smith, who heads the U.S. government's Agency for International Development. But she didn't shed any light on the matter.

For his part, Saleh says he felt demoralized by the incident, but knows it's not unusual for Syrians traveling abroad.

"Honestly, this is a problem across the board," he says. "For the Syrians in any airport in the world. It's become common."

One of Saleh's colleagues will deliver the award to him in Istanbul.

Alison Meuse in Beirut contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

A Syrian rescuer worker was supposed to pick up a humanitarian award in Washington, D.C., this week. He never got there. He was denied entry at the airport, and no reason has been given. But as NPR's Jackie Northam reports, the incident highlights the suspicion many Syrians face as they travel.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: On Monday afternoon, Raed Saleh, a Syrian national, landed at Dulles International Airport after an 11-hour journey from Turkey. In his passport was a visa for the U.S. He was to attend a banquet the next evening where he was being honored for his rescue work in Syria. But as Saleh tried to make his way through immigration, he says he was pulled aside by security.

RAED SALEH: (Through interpreter) And after about two or three hours, they told me, we apologize, but you must return to Turkey because this visa has been canceled. It's not valid. I told them, how isn't it valid? It's good for six months.

NORTHAM: Saleh, speaking via Skype, says the immigration official could not tell him why he was being turned back.

SALEH: (Their interpreter) He told me, I don't have any explanation or details. I can't tell you anything.

NORTHAM: Saleh had to return to Turkey without the award he was to receive from InterAction, an alliance of international humanitarian and aid agencies. Saleh heads up a group known as the Syria Civil Defense, a collection of 2,800 volunteer rescue workers that help victims caught up in the war. The group is known as the White Helmets. Nancy Wilson is the CEO of Relief International, which nominated Saleh for the award.

NANCY WILSON: Their group really responds when buildings have been damaged from bombing or other kinds of strikes. And they go in, and they pull people out of the rubble.

NORTHAM: Wilson says the awards dinner carried on without Saleh but that many members of the audience wore White Helmets in his honor. Wilson says she's surprised Saleh wasn't allowed in the U.S.

WILSON: He has been to the United States before, spoken at the U.N. Security Council, was allowed on the plane, which is not an easy thing in Turkey to begin with because they scrutinize your visa papers there. And then for him to get here and not actually be allowed in the country - just very disappointing.

NORTHAM: The big, still-unanswered question is why Saleh was turned back. The Department of Homeland Security issued a statement saying a number of U.S. agencies - the State Department, law enforcement and the like - have a say in determining whether someone can enter the country.

Ironically, the keynote speaker at the dinner was Gayle Smith, who heads the U.S. government's Agency for International Development. But she didn't shed any light on the matter. For his part, Saleh says he felt demoralized by the incident but knows it's not unusual for Syrians traveling abroad.

SALEH: (Through interpreter) Honestly, this is a problem across the board. For the Syrians in any airport in the world, it's become common.

NORTHAM: One of Saleh's colleagues will deliver the award to him in Istanbul. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.