Mazen Alawi arrived in Orange County six years ago, near the beginning of the Syrian civil war, seeking asylum after he says he was arrested and tortured nearly to death by the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
Since then, the atrocities carried out by Assad's regime against its own citizens have displaced 11 million people, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The civil war is considered the main driver of the largest mass migration of people since World War II, which has caused numerous countries to enforce stricter immigration laws in response, including the United States.
Alawi spoke with KTLA on Saturday at his home in La Habra to share his harrowing escape from Syria, and his views on U.S. President Donald Trump's travel ban, which partially went into effect this week after months of being stalled in court proceedings.
Alawi's journey shows just how much America's borders have tightened since he came on a tourist visa he had acquired months before on whim, after hearing about a friend's Las Vegas vacation.
The Syrian national had been living in Dubai for nine years, running a small advertising business, when he made a trip to visit his parents and children back home in 2011.
As soon as he got off the plane, Syrian intelligence agents put a black bag over his head, he said, and took him to a government jail in Aleppo, where he would stay nine months. Alawi claims he was accused of spying for the U.S., Qatar and United Arab Emirates and considered a traitor simply because he published a critique of President al-Assad.
"Nobody ask me any question," he said. "Just they come — sometimes at night, sometimes (in the) morning, sometimes afternoon, every two (or) three days — and they take me in another room and they do bad stuff."
He suffered through relentless torture for nine months in jail while his family had no idea where he was and the government denied involvement, he said.
On the last day Alawi claims he was taken to an intelligence officer who sliced his arms deeply with a knife after he refused to say he was a traitor.
"This is my country. I love my country. But I don’t love the president," he recalls saying repeatedly.
He helplessly watched blood pour out of his arms and his fingers went cold. The next thing he knew, he was waking up in a hospital.
"When I got out, I hate that situation. And I hate, not my country, but I hate the situation in my country," he said. "And I want to leave."
He tried to go back to Qatar or the UAE, but he had lost residency since he had been out of the country six months, he said, and could not go to Lebanon, where the Assad-friendly government would have arrested him at the airport.
So he went to Egypt, where he was interviewed on television by Al Jazeera. He says Syrian officials were angered, went to his family's home and threatened to kill them if he spoke out against the nation's leader, Bashar al-Assad, again.
As soon as he found out, he feared he would be found and killed if he didn't flee again, and suddenly remembered his United States tourist visa — just 13 days before it expired.
He rushed to the Cairo airport before he even knew where he was going.
"I tell (the airline ticket agent) I need some state that’s not cold too much like New York, and I hear in California there is a lot of Arab people, and the weather is so nice," he recalled. "And I hear about Hollywood; I am a writer.”
They gave him a ticket to LAX.
He was interviewed by immigration officials for three hours upon landing, he said.
"I tell her everything about what happened to me, about everything," Alawi said. "And she say, what about your family? And I tell her I have three children in Syria, and I tell her I’m scared a lot. And she say, ‘We will do what we can to get your family and you be safe here in United States. I respect you a lot, thank you Mr. Mazen.’”
Sitting encircled by his three children on the sofa in his La Habra living room, Alawi laments that the same refuge is not available to his ex-wife, he has been living in Turkey.
“With all respect, Mr. Donald Trump, let these kids tell you what they are seeing in Syria,” he said.
When he sees kids playing in their American front yard, “sometimes I cry,” Alawi said.
“If I can not bring them to United States, then what would happen?" he asked. "Then I would not sleep all the night because this Bashar al-Assad kills everybody. Maybe chemical weapons will come to them. They are lucky. I say thank God, because my kids are here. But I cry because there are thousands of kids like this in Syria. If United States and Mr. Donald Trump not help them, who would help them?"