Beirut – An award-winning Syrian opposition activist said on Thursday that he was turned back and denied entry into the United States a day before he was supposed to receive one of the most prestigious prize from peers for his volunteer work saving lives in his war-torn homeland.
Raed Saleh, a 32-year old from northern Syria, said he doesn’t know why he was turned back upon landing in Washington D.C. on Monday.
After waiting for two hours, Saleh said officials at the airport told him through a translator that his visa was “not valid.” He returned the same day to Turkey.
“No one has an explanation,” Saleh told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “I hope this decision doesn’t negatively impact the work we do.”
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby had no specifics on Saleh’s case.
“The U.S. government’s system of continual vetting means that traveler records are screened against available information in real-time. While we can’t confirm any possible specific actions in this case, we do have the ability to immediately coordinate with our interagency partners when new information becomes available,” Kirby said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency charged with determining admissibility of foreign nationals at U.S. ports of entry, is prohibited from discussing the specifics of an individual’s admissibility review.
Saleh, who has traveled to the United States several times before, leads a team of nearly 3,000 search-and-rescue volunteers who have saved thousands of lives in Syria’s five-year-old war. His group, known as Syrian Civil Defense Team or White Helmets, is often the first to get to the scene after government bombings, pulling people from under rubbles and rescuing victims of chemical attacks. His team has often come under fire and at least 100 of his volunteers died while on duty.
Damascus denies it uses barrel bombs and has said it destroyed its chemical arsenal.
Saleh has met with U.S. and European officials and presented evidence of the Syrian government’s use of chlorine in bombs. He has addressed the U.N. Security Council and spoken in panels on the violence in Syria.
For his work, he and his team have often come under criticism, often drawing on the fact that they operate in areas controlled by Islamist factions, including the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, and the Islamic State.
“We are forced to deal with the de-facto authority in Syria so we can offer our services to civilians,” Saleh said. “There must be services offered or we risk turning everyone into an extremist.”
He said his denial of entry reflects the wider problem facing Syrians, millions of whom have been displaced from their homes because of violence.
Saleh was traveling Monday to receive a humanitarian award by InterAction — the largest U.S. alliance of non-governmental organizations.
“I am shocked and saddened to learn that Raed would be turned away by U.S. officials on the eve of being recognized by his peers in the international humanitarian community for his heroic work in Syria to help bring life-saving assistance to communities under fire in Syria,” said InterAction CEO Sam Worthington.