BRADENTON -- Hassan Shibly is a Syrian-American who came to the United States when he was 4.
His family originally lived on $500 per month, and now his father practices oral surgery and his mother is an orthodontist.
"I remember my father woke me up one day and told us we were going to America, and I was so excited, but for weird reasons," Shibly said with a laugh. "I thought the sky was going to be a different color. Then we got to New York and I was disappointed because it was still blue."
Shibly, now the chief executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Florida based in Tampa, said his parents were granted green cards after his father was a visiting doctor to America. While he loves his home country, he said he is thankful he and his family came to the United States before the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a terrorist group that has invaded Syria and is causing the crisis.
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"I could've drowned trying to escape or been decapitated by ISIS," Shibly said. "I'm so thankful we chose to come here."
Shibly on Thursday attended the discussion hosted by the Manatee Tiger Bay Club on allowing Syrian refugees into the country where Laila Abdelaziz, the legislative and government affairs director for CAIR, and retired Lt. Col. Richard Swier offered extremely different points of view on the Syrian refugee crisis.
Swier insisted it was not a
"refugee crisis," but a "Muslim migration," comparing it to the migration of Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina.
"He picked up the sword, and he conquered the entire Arabic peninsula, driving out all the Christians and Jews," Swier said. "That is why it's a migration. You do not have 3, 4, 5 million people move north without it being properly planned and organized."
Swier also talked about the Paris terrorist attacks in November, which originally spurred the conversations on denying Syrian refugees entrance to the United States. He said even though the terrorists in those attacks were not from Syria, they were members of the Islamic State and of the Islamic faith. He also said the woman involved in the San Bernardino shooting was here as a refugee, which is not true, and therefore proved the refugee screening process in the United States was not good enough.
He also warned against political correctness and people not reporting their neighbors because they're afraid of being called racist.
"Political correctness kills," Swier said. "It killed in San Bernardino."
Abdelaziz said the woman in the San Bernardino shooting was here on a fiancee visa, and that she was not contesting that certain immigration laws in the country needed to be changed. She asserted the United States has one of the toughest refugee-screening processes in the world, and every refugee must go through five federal agencies before they can come to the United States, including the CIA, FBI and Homeland Security.
She said refugee camps have proven to not be a viable solution in this crisis, as some people have suggested, rather than bringing refugees into the country, because they are meant to be temporary and are becoming permanent. That means an entire generation of people is left without education and other opportunities while living in refugee camps long term, she said.
"These people are the foremost victims of war crimes, of terrorist activities, of loss of home," Abdelaziz said. "This is a global humanitarian concern, this is a global crisis, and as Americans we have a duty to resettle and open our borders to these individuals that are seeking opportunities, stability and safety in the global community."
Abdelaziz said she understood wanting to feel safe and concerns about security, but "bigoted, xenophobic rhetoric," is not the answer.
Shibly said the things Swier said about Muslims were disturbing and hurtful.
"This is a complete disconnection from reality. This is fear-mongering," Shibly said. "If I could communicate one thing, I would say people should get to know Syrian refugees for themselves."
Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. You can follow her on Twitter @KateIrby