Sarmed Ibrahim, an engineer from Sacramento County, is haunted by the cries of his daughter when al Qaida attacked his Baghdad home a decade ago because he’d cooperated with the U.S.
“When I see my daughter – she’s 17 now – I still hear her voice, her screaming, as the bullets are coming around us,” Ibrahim said. “We thought this was the end.”
Ibrahim, who settled as a refugee in Carmichael, California, after his family escaped Iraq, was invited by Rep. Ami Bera to be his guest at Tuesday’s State of the Union address. His presence in the Capitol for President Barack Obama’s speech was a reminder that anti-refugee sentiment is high, particularly after last week’s arrests in Sacramento and Houston of two Iraqi refugees on terror charges.
The arrests are heightening calls for tighter restrictions on refugees, with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from Bakersfield, saying the “arrests make clear what the president has disregarded for too long: our refugee program has the potential to be abused.”
McCarthy said the Senate needed to approve a bill the House had passed that would forbid refugees from Syria and Iraq from coming to the U.S. unless the heads of three national security agencies personally certified that each refugee did not pose a threat. Obama said the bill would “unacceptably hamper our efforts to assist some of the most vulnerable people in the world.”
Bera, a Democrat from Elk Grove, invited Ibrahim to the president’s address after breaking with his party to support the controversial bill. Bera said the bill would not bar refugees and was “an opportunity to reassure the public that refugees are not the threat.”
He said he’d invited Ibrahim in order to highlight a refugee success story and to counter rising rhetoric, such as Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump’s call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S.
“My hope is that when people hear a story like Sarmed’s they understand he hates the terrorists probably more than anybody else because they shot at him – they ran him out of his country,” Bera said. “Yes, people are worried, yes we have threats, but let’s not change who we are and what our values are.”
Ibrahim, a civil engineer, worked to build Internet infrastructure in Baghdad after the American invasion and to create an Iraqi media network, in cooperation with the U.S. military. He drew the attention of al Qaida, which attacked his office, destroying all his equipment, then tried twice to shoot him in his car before launching the 2005 attack on his home.
Friends helped Ibrahim and his family flee to Jordan and then Syria, where they lived in refugee camps. They were eventually accepted into the United States as refugees and settled in 2009 in Sacramento, where Ibrahim is chief engineer for a hotel management company.
Ibrahim said he hoped to send a message through his attendance at the president’s State of the Union address.
“Whatever our religion, whatever our background, we are here as Americans. It’s time for us all to stand together against the enemy,” Ibrahim said. “There is no time now to isolate people or push them away.”
Ibrahim said he was against legislation to tighten screening of refugees. Obama administration officials say it takes an average of 18 to 24 months before a refugee is approved. Ibrahim said it could take five years, with multiple interviews and background checks.
“The refugee process, the vetting process – taking from two to five years – I think is very strong now,” he said.
Ibrahim is on the board of the Sacramento nonprofit agency Opening Doors, which helps refugees resettle. He’s also founder and director of the Mesopotamia Organization, a volunteer group that helps Iraqi refugees.
His visit to Washington came days after federal authorities charged Iraqi refugee Aws Mohammed Younis al Jayab in Sacramento with lying to immigration authorities and with leaving the U.S. at the end of 2013 to fight with terror groups in Syria before returning to America.
Ibrahim said he was shocked at the arrest but was glad there were no indications that al Jayab had planned an attack in the U.S. Ibrahim said he had never heard of the man and wanted to hear how the case played out.
“We need to build bridges between communities. These newcomers, here or everywhere in the world, we need to get them involved. Isolating them makes them easy for other people to recruit them,” Ibrahim said.
Rep. Doris Matsui, a Democrat from Sacramento, said the arrest in her city showed that the process worked.
“They have a guy in custody, and if something bad was going to happen they prevented something bad from happening,” she said.
Matsui said the Republican bill to require the heads of three national security agencies to vouch for each refugee was unworkable and would hamper the acceptance of people fleeing violence.
She said she could support other measures, though, such as requiring the secretary of homeland security to certify the refugees and to make sure their names had gone through federal databases.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California, said Congress needed to take a harder look at all people seeking to enter the United States, not just refugees.
“While not losing who we are as Americans, we need to review and tighten our processes for looking at everyone who is coming into this country.”
Ibrahim, who came to Washington with his wife and toured the White House and Capitol before the State of the Union address, said he wanted Americans to understand that refugees were not a threat.
“We are a part of this community; we are as Americans. We stand against any kind of terrorism,” he said.