Harassed for being Syrian-American, restaurateur schools lawmakers

Syrian-American Obeid Kaifo and his Syrian immigrant parents own the Shish Kabob Grill next to the state Capitol. Since the Paris attacks, he has been harassed and even blamed for what happened. Now, he is on a one person crusade to educate lawmakers about Syrians and the Muslim community. 

DENVER — “For every ten people, maybe two are bigoted and ignorant,” Obeid Kaifo.

Loved ones told the young man and his family they should be concerned for their safety in Colorado after the Islamic State waged multiple terrorist attacks across Paris, killing 130 people last month. His parents are Syrian immigrants, after all.

The family owns and operates Shish Kabob Grill, a Capitol Hill neighborhood restaurant across from the Statehouse that has served countless customers including state and federal lawmakers and even the US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford. 

“I’ve built a rapport with a lot of these officials,” Kaifo told The Colorado Independent. “Even ones who don’t serve in public office anymore still come here to eat.”

So, he was shocked when Colorado officials began speaking out against President Obama’s plan to allow 10,000 Syrian refugees into the United States. While Gov. John Hickenlooper said that Colorado would not block Syrian refugees from entering the state, many Colorado Republicans argued Colorado should shut its doors on those escaping the brutality of ISIL. 

Even Democrat Jared Polis, who claimed to support Syrian refugees, joined forces with the anti-Islam right in voting for a bill to create a stricter process for vetting Syrians fleeing the civil war. 

Rep. Scott Tipton told the Denver Post that Hickelooper’s decision to accept refugees was “naïve and irresponsible” because all it takes is one Islamic State terrorist to come through.

“Everyone just started attacking the problem and attacking refugees,” said Kaifo. “It became propaganda for the Republican side.”

Shish Kabob Grill customers, fellow students at the Auraria campus, people on social media and even Kaifo’s teachers began asking him about the situation. Kaifo said that while many showed overwhelming support, many others who seemed to have nothing against the owners of Shish Kabob Grill before the Paris attacks, suddenly began harassing the family through phone calls and on social media. 

“What are you going to say for yourself now? How do you support yourself?” messages read. Kaifo called them direct attacks.

“People forgot everything they learned about Muslims after 9/11,” Kaifo said. “It’s been one step forward and five steps back.”

Because of its location near Denver’s Capitol, Shish Kabob Grill has become a hub where Kaifo aims to dispel misinformation, fear and general ignorance when it comes to what kind of people Syrians are. 

“I feel that I have to defend myself, and every Syrian,” said Kaifo. “In addition to that, I have to defend myself as a Muslim.”

Kaifo says that because of harassment the last couple of weeks have been some of the most stressful in his life. “You literally have to make up for everything that’s being said and you feel somewhat compelled to do so because you become a source for a lot of people.” 

“People aren’t asking questions. They’re not asking the right questions. I calculate that it’s my job to say, ‘Let’s have dialog. Let’s just sit down and talk. Ask all the questions you want,’” he said.

Kaifo’s in touch with Syrian relatives. He has lost four family members to the civil war. Those still there are often afraid to say too much. 

“They might not speak as freely as they’d like because of the fear of repercussions, but I can call my grandmother right now, or my uncle and cousins who live there. They can tell me what the atmosphere is like.“ 

People in Syria are looking for a better life, Kaifo said. People take advantage of them in their own besieged country and things are not much better for those who flee to neighboring countries. They struggle for jobs. If they find work, it’s under the table and underpaid. They live nomadic lives without citizenship papers in countries where food and rent are expensive. Sometimes extended families have to live together in one small home just to survive.

“As much as the neighboring countries are giving by opening up their doors and putting tents up, refugees are having a hard time buying things for themselves. Everything is so expensive. They can’t save anything,” he said. “Neighboring countries like Jordan, Turkey, Beirut and Lebanon are putting the blame on Syrians for any trouble they might be having such as with their own economies.”

“I don’t like mixing my business with what’s going on in Syria,” Kaifo says. “It makes my life more difficult. I can only do so much, but I feel compelled to do everything I can to inform people on the problem. There’s a huge discrepancy in perception and the reality.”

Kaifo works with numerous supporters and non-profit organizations including African Community Center, Lutheran Family Services and Jewish Family Services, to educate people about the Syrian crisis.

He also plays an integral role in launching the Colorado arm of the Syrian American Council, an organization that works to amplify the voices of Syrian-Americans and also aims to help refugees experience smoother transitions into the west.

Correction 12/8/15 3:35: Initially this article stated that Kaifo worked with the Apsen Community Center. He works with the African Community Center. 

Photo courtesy of Obeid Kaifo