Fleeing War, a Syrian Family Makes a New Home in North Carolina
Fleeing War, a Syrian Family Makes a New Home in North Carolina
GREENSBORO, North Carolina—The Al Haj Kasem family gathers for breakfast just after six in the morning. There are cereal, jam, yogurt, pita bread, olive oil, and a blend of herbs called za'atar.
"This is coffee," says nine-year-old Ahmed, showing off his English. "This is bread. This is water."
"Yalla!" his father, Hussein, calls out, telling them to hurry in Arabic, and they set out with Fatima, 11, into the darkness and the drizzle for the bus stop, a block and a half away.
Hussein is back home in time to walk Albatoul, seven, to her bus stop. Albatoul's socks sparkle and her red coat is warm. Another girl her age greets her with a hug at the corner where the bus to the neighborhood elementary school stops.
Back home, Aysha, her mother, has made a second breakfast of scrambled eggs, pita, and herbs for herself and Hussein. By now the baby, Mohammad, is also up, dressed and smiling. Zahra, three, is perched on the dining room table.
"Zahra is crazy," Hussein says and laughs.
Aysha, who goes by her family name Orabi, is the calm one, steady over these past three years of turmoil. Hussein is full of nervous energy, his hands in constant motion, jabbing the air with one finger or slapping his hip for emphasis.
The family has been here almost six months, after moving from Az Zarqa, Jordan, where they had taken refuge in 2012 from the civil war in Syria. More than 3.8 million Syrians have fled to an uncertain future to escape unspeakable violence. Most of their extended family—the couple have 15 brothers and sisters between them—has scattered too.
Aysha, 34, loves the bungalow they rent here in a working-class, mostly African-American neighborhood, but the relief she and her husband felt the moment their plane landed has given way to frustration over life as a refugee family in America.
This morning, in particular, Hussein, 36, is worried about a delay in food stamps and health benefits, part of the aid package that refugees receive from the U.S. government. He knows a Syrian family in Texas who received theirs in a week, he explains, using Google Translate on his phone.
"Why?" he asks. "Why?"
The Journey to North Carolina
Hussein and his family landed in Greensboro on September 9, exhausted by two days of travel. They were the second Syrian family to find refuge in North Carolina last year and among just 249 Syrian refugees resettled in the United States. They knew little about America except for the notion that this is a country that celebrates individualism, which they had picked up from Arnold Schwarzenegger action films. And they knew nothing of life in Greensboro, a city of about 280,000 in the central part of the state, best known for its civil rights sit-ins at the Woolworth lunch counter and Newport cigarettes.
Kim LeBlanc, their caseworker with Church World Service, the resettlement agency that would help them adapt to their new life, sat in the near-empty waiting area at the airport, watching a monitor for a family of seven. She saw a woman dressed in black, her head covered in a hijab, carrying an infant; three children in winter jackets; and a man with curly black hair cradling a toddler in one arm. In his free hand he carried a white plastic bag, marked with the logo of the International Organization for Migration, which LeBlanc knew held the family's travel documents.
"That's them, I think," she said to me, suddenly on her feet. "He's got the white bag. I always get chills at this part."
Aysha and Hussein grew up in Saraqib, in northwestern Syria, a region known for pistachios, olives, and citrus. They knew each other's families, but didn't meet until they were in their early 20s. They married when Aysha was 23 and Hussein 24. Hussein worked in construction and in a cousin's bakery. Aysha stayed home and raised the children. They explain all this with the help of a translator, Rima Ksebie, a Syrian American who lives in Greensboro.
As Hussein tells it, the civil unrest began in Saraqib in the spring of 2011, like it did in other parts of Syria, as protests against the government of President Bashar al Assad. Similar uprisings had overthrown governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and many in Syria hoped that they could do the same. But Assad's army struck back.
What started peacefully turned violent. The bakery was ransacked. The children couldn't go to school. Hussein couldn't work.
Hussein had a cousin in Jordan, and in January 2012 he left his family hoping to find work there. When the job with the cousin fell through, he settled in Az Zarqa, an industrial city just north of the capital, Amman, and found work in a hardware store. When the owner heard about Hussein's family, he paid for Aysha, pregnant with Mohammad, and the four children to fly there.
The Decision to Leave the Middle East
They registered for refugee status with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in May and said yes when asked whether they wanted to be resettled.
In 2012, many refugees believed that the civil war would end soon and that they would be able to return, but Hussein said even then he knew he wanted to find a country where he and his family could live in peace. He was tired, too, of every Syrian he met wanting to know which side he was on. To this day he refuses to discuss politics.
What began as street demonstrations and became an armed rebellion against a dictator has become a many-sided conflict with no end in sight. The battle has drawn seasoned fighters from Hezbollah in Lebanon to back Assad and spawned the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), a violent extremist group that has seized considerable territory in Syria and Iraq.
The interviews began the following year, four of them, to clear the family for resettlement. At first they were told they were headed for Austria. One morning last spring, the phone rang. The caller from UNHCR told Hussein that his application had been switched to the United States. There was no explanation. "Is that okay?" the caller asked. "And if I say no?" Hussein replied. "Then we cancel your resettlement application." He said yes.
A new round of interviews began, this time with the International Organization for Migration, which handles interviews for the United States, and eventually with the U.S. State Department, which screens refugees to try to prevent terrorists from entering the country.
Their last appointment was June 22. They waited in an office in Amman with about a dozen other families, some Syrian, others Iraqi, to be told whether they were accepted or denied. By then, Syrian refugees could no longer work in Jordan, and Hussein was desperate. If they were turned down, he figured he could send his wife and children to Turkey, where a sister was living in a refugee camp, and return to Syria in hopes of finding work.
Some families waiting with them were rejected and left in tears. Hussein and his family left with a letter of acceptance and smiles that, as Hussein explains with hand gestures, spread across their faces and behind their ears.
Officials offer no explanation for why Hussein and his family were accepted and others were rejected, left behind in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey in refugee camps, makeshift shelters, squalid apartments, or worse. The UNHCR and the State Department do not discuss individual cases.
"Some of these first cases were just really lucky," said Sarah Ivory, director of the Church World Service's refugee program in Greensboro. "They were just processed early before there was any backlog."
Only about 10 percent, or 378,000, of the 3.8 million registered Syrian refugees have asked to be resettled, the UNHCR says, but this does not account for the thousands of refugees who have never registered or the 7.6 million who have been displaced but remain in Syria.
The UN reported this month that 25 counties have agreed to accept 70,232 refugees. The U.S. has not set a limit, but is currently considering 10,527 whose names were submitted by the UN. The process can take up to two years. So far, just 7,000 have left for new homes. Over the next two years, the UNHCR expects to resettle 130,000.
A New Home in Greensboro
Refugees arrive in the U.S. as legal residents, which means that they are entitled to a Social Security number and basic federal benefits, such as food stamps and Medicaid. The children can enroll in public schools.
Refugees also receive a one-time grant of between $925 and $1,125 per person from the federal government—for Hussein's family, that came to $6,475. The money is meant to get them through the first few months. Additional short-term assistance is available for up to six months. Then they are on their own, often with no savings, no car, and at best a minimum-wage job.
"Truthfully, the challenges have nothing to do with being refugees," Ivory said. "It has to be do with being poor in America. It's really tough to be poor in America."
Hussein and his family say they didn't know what to expect from life in America, but it certainly wasn't poverty. It wasn't the utility bills that weigh on Hussein. It wasn't an hour bus ride to the health department for immunization shots. Or a half-hour bus trip to the supermarket.
Last year Ivory's agency resettled more than 234 refugees from 11 countries and 30 ethnic groups. They find their way to Greensboro because of family ties or simply because Church World Service, one of nine resettlement agencies that work with the State Department, has an office there and is able to help with housing, schools, and jobs. But it's local volunteers who provide the support families depend on to adjust to a strange and often lonely life.
Zane and Lana Kuseybi, Syrian Americans who live in Greensboro, have played that role for Hussein and his family. The Kuseybis, born in the United States, have relatives in Syria, where their fathers, both doctors, studied medicine together. Lana spent her early childhood in Damascus; Zane grew up in Delaware. After his father died, Zane spent summers during high school and college with relatives in Homs, Syria.
For the Kuseybis, the images of war-torn Syria were images of home. "All of us with Syrian backgrounds feel horrible about what's happening," Zane said.
Back in 2013, the Kuseybis reached out to Ivory to see how they could help. Ivory promised to be in touch if any Syrian families were assigned to her agency. Her call came in August. The Kuseybis had two weeks to prepare. Lana put out the word through friends and her college sorority sisters.
Another Syrian-American woman, who teaches yoga, told her students about the refugee family who was coming with nothing. They raised more than $1,000 and collected furniture, children's clothes, car seats, a stroller, a crib, toys, bedding, pots and pans, and more.
Two days after Hussein and his family landed, the Kuseybis pulled up in front of the bungalow that Church World Service had found for them and unloaded the donations.
For weeks, the Kuseybis returned every few days. "Zane is an angel," Aysha tells me.
The couple took the children to a park and out for ice cream. Before Halloween, they took everyone to a pumpkin patch and for a hayride. They took Hussein and Aysha to the Department of Motor Vehicles for identity cards and Hussein to the doctor twice for his high blood pressure.
Zane arranged for Internet service so that the family can use social media websites to keep in touch with relatives still at home and spread across the Middle East.
Sometimes, Aysha cries when Lana leaves. In Syria, she was always surrounded by relatives. And even in Jordan, her neighbors were Syrian refugees like her. Resettlement workers say that these highs and lows are typical for refugee families. "Is it worth it?" Lana wonders. "I struggle with that answer all the time. All I can say is, I hope it will be."
A New Life Takes Shape
By early November, things seemed to be settling down for Hussein and his family. His high blood pressure was under control. Aysha was taking English classes five days a week.
The older children, Fatima and Ahmed, enrolled in a public school for children of immigrants and refugees, had made friends with other Arabic-speaking children. Albatoul's teacher at the neighborhood elementary school had learned the Arabic for "I love you." Zahra, too, was learning English, and the baby was almost walking.
An Iraqi friend who lives an easy bus ride away dropped by often with his son. And the Muslim call to prayer, an echo of another life, came into the house five times a day in Arabic through an app on the smartphone.
There were some setbacks too. Hussein failed the written test for a driver's license, administered in Arabic, stumped by questions like the one about the alcohol level for drunk driving, an issue he had never considered because as a Muslim he doesn't drink. Mostly, he was frustrated that he was not working.
Laughter fills the house. Each time I visited, they welcomed me with food and something to drink—coffee flavored with cardamom, a plate of apples and bananas, a dish they call "upside down" of beef and eggplant on top of rice, served with sticks of celery, raw peppers, and radishes.
The conversation turns to dishes from home and za'atar, the herbs Syrians mix with olive oil to spread on pita. The Lebanese version, which they can get in Greensboro, is not as fragrant as the one Hussein and Rima Ksebie, the translator, tell me they remember from Syria. Still, it smells like home.
In December, Hussein passed his driving test and bought a used Honda minivan for $2,000. An Iraqi friend heard that the Ralph Lauren packaging plant eight miles (13 kilometers) away in High Point was hiring through a temporary agency. Hussein, the friend, and another refugee, also Iraqi, applied together. All three were hired and started work that week.
They carpool, leaving the house about two in the afternoon for the 20-minute ride. On days when they work a full shift, Hussein is not home until two in the morning, and worries the whole time about Aysha, alone at home with the children. Even with a job, Hussein still worries about the bills, which he can barely cover with his earnings from his $8-an-hour job with irregular hours.
But it's the loss of dignity that hurts him the most. As the Arabic saying goes, "Better to die in your own country with dignity rather than live in another as a stranger with no dignity."
Another New Start
In the evenings now, after the children go to bed, Aysha has time to herself. One afternoon, she told me she thinks about her family, especially her mother, who is living in Libya, facing new dangers as a civil war starts up around her. Mohammad barrels around the living room in his walker. Zahra sits on the couch between me and her mother, playing a video game.
The translator has gone, but English has come more easily to Aysha than to Hussein, and the words she doesn't know she finds quickly with Google Translate. She wants to learn to drive and she's heard about an early morning shift at the Ralph Lauren plant that would get her home in time for Hussein to go to work. The older children could help her in the afternoon, after school. "Now, I want to work," she says. "I will work to help my husband."
It's the end of February. A week of single-digit temperatures has given way to a nearly balmy Sunday afternoon. The snow is melting, and it's warm enough to open the windows.
Earlier in the month, three Muslim students were shot to death in Chapel Hill, just 50 miles (80 kilometers) away, and the news traveled around the world to Hussein's family back home. They have called to make sure he and Aysha and the children are safe here in North Carolina, in this place they had never heard of until it became their home.
The shootings make them feel uneasy, but there is more pressing news to discuss. They are moving again, but this time not far. Hussein pulls out the notification from the Housing Authority of the City of High Point. The rent for the subsidized house is half of what he pays now, and includes utilities. He shows me pictures. The house is brick, with three bedrooms and a bigger kitchen with newer appliances. And it's only five minutes from his job.
A weight seems to lift from him. There are still details to be sorted out. The children may have to transfer to a new school, a prospect that made Albatoul cry because she loves her teacher.
"It feels like another new start," Aysha says. She doesn't want to pack up and unload again. Lana and Zane study the pictures. They are visiting for the afternoon and promise to help. Zane will arrange for Internet service again and make sure the post office has a forwarding address. And Lana has heard about a magnet school in High Point that might be good for Albatoul.
Aysha cheers up. There's a parking lot near the new house, the perfect place to learn to drive. And Hussein has promised that he will teach her.
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