Image by Caitlin Kuhwald
Before the Syrian city of Homs became known as the “capital of the revolution,” Ahmad Youssef called it home. Married at age fifteen, he and his wife had eight children. “We were very happy living there. Everything was free, from schooling to medical. Living costs were cheap.”
That changed in March 2011, when protests began in Homs against the governor at the time. “There was a lot of corruption,” says Youssef. “If you applied for water or electricity or a new home, he wouldn’t give permits. You would have to pay a bribe.”
Youssef, who lived less than a mile from Clock Square where government forces launched a deadly assault on protesters in April 2011, supported calls for the governor to resign, but did not join in the protests. Within months, he says, there were “random bombings and explosions. We used to hear explosions at night, and heard other areas in Homs being bombed.”
The conflict reached his family’s doorstep in October 2011, when open warfare prevented Youssef from returning home after a trip abroad. “I was two miles away,” he recalls. “I could hear gunfire. I called five taxi drivers and no one would pick me up. I was scared for my family.”
And so Youssef’s family decided to flee, as his neighbors and cousins had already done. They jammed into two cars, along with his sister’s family of four, and drove to Jordan. They told military personnel at checkpoints on the road south they were going to visit cousins. “We took just our clothes, identification, and money. We left everything else behind. We left our hearts back home in Homs.”
Speaking from his new home in Toledo, Ohio, Youssef begins to cry. “Syria is our mother. We miss the soil of Syria, the aroma of Syria, the water of Syria. We hope to return when it is peaceful. It will take a long time before it gets back to the old ways.”
Corine Debabey helps a client with his resume and employment application.
Youssef tells his story through translator Corine Dehabey. She is the Toledo director of the refugee-service organization US Together, an affiliate of HIAS, formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Since March 2015, fifty-eight Syrians have landed in the Great Lakes city. They’ve journeyed from Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, which host most of the 4.8 million Syrians who’ve been registered by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees since 2012.
Dehabey is an immigrant from Syria as well. Her father was American, and she moved to Toledo as a teenager in 1978. She returned to Damascus in 2000 and left months before the uprising broke out. “The whole war was shocking to us in Syria,” she says. “We never noticed anything unusual. Syria was a very comfortable country to live in. In addition to free education and health care, the cost of living was low—housing, food, even school supplies.”
Most refugees “have a honeymoon stage,” says Dehabey, but culture shock hits as they struggle with language and customs and become “overwhelmed with all the documentation and paperwork.” The refugees come from all over Syria—Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, and Daraa, the city where the revolt began. Many refugees are highly educated professionals—engineers as well as business owners, tradespeople, and farmers.
Ghassan, who owned a restaurant in Damascus before escaping in May 2013 with his wife, Miriam, and two adult children, also arrived in Toledo in late 2015. (The names are pseudonyms, to protect their safety). He did not support the anti-government protests in Syria, and is grateful to be in the United States. “We didn’t expect to be treated with dignity and respect,” he says. But after two months, Ghassan was fretting because his landlord was raising their rent, and “everything is so expensive.”
Both families also mentioned the cash assistance they get from the government barely covers rent and utilities. The biggest challenge for Ghassan is learning English, which he says “is going to take a long time.” But he’s mastered a rule of modern American society: “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.”
Referring to the refugee agency, Dehabey says because the Syrian refugees don’t have relatives or friends to sponsor them, “We are everything. We are the mom. We are the dad. We are the teacher, the chauffeur, the emergency contact. We get calls all the time, at night, on the weekend.”
US Together provides intensive support to refugees. Besides arranging for free English lessons, which refugees can attend as long as they like, the agency assists with financial literacy classes, job interview and employment training, securing residences and driver’s licenses, and activities like museum visits and holiday gatherings. The group has a three-year federal grant to counsel survivors of torture. It also provides cultural orientation.
“We teach them things like when you talk to someone, you look them in the eye,” Dehabey says. Group members explain that it’s customary for people in the United States to shake hands, even members of the opposite sex. Refugees are also tutored in U.S. laws regarding child neglect, domestic violence, and substance abuse. Dehabey says this is more of a precaution as these problems have not surfaced among Syrian refugees, but depression affects those traumatized by war.
The growing Toledo community accounts for a significant portion of the Syrians who have already been resettled in the United States. They are among the 10,000 Syrians the Obama Administration announced last September it would bring in over a one-year period. The White House was responding to the outcry over the exodus of Middle Eastern and North African refugees into Europe in the summer of 2015 and the heart-searing photograph of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, washed up dead on a Turkish beach after his family fled the Syrian civil war.
Bill Swersey, a spokesperson for HIAS, says the Kurdi tragedy “opened the door to public opinion.” For years, refugee advocates were pushing for a response and suddenly “it was one of the biggest issues in the world.”
Tarah Demant, senior director of the identity and discrimination unit for Amnesty International USA, says increasing the number of Syrian refugees along with the annual cap for all refugees by 15,000 “is a good sign the United States is responding to its international human-rights obligations, but it is still a drop in the bucket.” Following Kurdi’s death, nearly eighty national religious, social justice, and refugee-aid organizations sent the Obama Administration a letter calling on it to resettle 100,000 Syrians over the next year.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations cosigned the letter. Ibrahim Hooper, the group’s national communications director, says with European countries accepting hundreds of thousands of Syrians the “United States has an obligation to take in far greater numbers than announced by the Obama Administration.”
A U.S. State Department spokesperson, speaking on background, stuck by the lower amount: “The United States remains steadfastly committed to the President’s plan to resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees.”
But even that minimal goal is in doubt. In six months, fewer than 1,200 Syrian refugees have trickled into the United States, including seven members of the Youssef family who arrived last November. Ahmad says it took his family a year and a half to clear the hurdles of the U.S. process, and his three eldest daughters remain stuck in Jordan, awaiting the stamp of approval to join their family. Experts say there are some 20,000 Syrians in the pipeline for U.S. resettlement, but many won’t make it through.
Demant says the screening process, which usually takes two years, is “incredibly secure, incredibly well vetted, and incredibly burdensome.”
The process for Syrian refugees typically starts with a recommendation from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which identifies families willing to resettle in the United States. From there, refugees are interviewed and biodata and biometrics, such as iris scans for Middle Easterners, are collected.
According to the White House website, “less than 1 percent of global refugee population” gets beyond this first step. Then identity documents are collected and a series of separate interviews and security screenings begin, involving the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, State Department, and National Counterterrorism Center. Syrians may be subjected to further screenings by the National Security Directorate and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Applications are continually checked against databases and applicants may be reinterviewed or investigated based on any new information. Refugees who surmount these obstacles and pass biometric and medical checks are scrutinized by the Transportation Security Administration before they enter the country.
Miriam, who came with Ghassan, described the resettlement process as “lengthy,” with five separate interviews and screenings. The couple, like the Youssefs, were fortunate to have grabbed crucial papers and documents before fleeing; many later refugees fled in haste without these documents.
“Many people are turned away because they can’t provide documents.” Demant says. “If I was being shelled and fleeing, could I provide my birth certificate?”
Some Syrians arriving now in the United States escaped soon after the war began. Youssef’s family secured housing in Mafraq, Jordan, before Syrians began pouring in. A few miles away from Mafraq is the Zaatari refugee camp, which opened in July 2012 and houses nearly 80,000 people. “The Syrians call Zaatari the death camp. It’s really bad there,” Youssef says. “They are dying in the hot weather. They are dying in the cold weather.”
The onerous requirements and glacial pace of approvals are among the chief concerns raised by refugee advocates. The U.S. system also throws up bureaucratic, judicial, and legal roadblocks to those at risk of death or persecution seeking asylum. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees gums up the works as well. In 2014, 14.4 million refugees were registered with the agency, but it submitted only 104,000 cases for resettlement despite the fact most qualify, says Demant.
Bill Swersey says while the U.S. refugee program is difficult to adjust midstream, as funds for staffing and resettlement are budgeted a year in advance, there is a precedent to handle an influx of refugees. After North Vietnam reunified the country in 1975, ending the U.S. war, Washington resettled 131,000 Vietnamese in the United States rapidly despite security concerns, a lack of documents among fleeing refugees, and low public support.
Hooper also points to Canada as “an example of what can be done.” Just like the United States, Syrian refugees were a hot-button issue in Canada’s federal elections. But unlike Donald Trump, who’s whipped up xenophobia by vowing to ban Muslim visitors to the United States and shutting some mosques, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada’s Liberal Party won election in October 2015 with a promise to open the door to 25,000 Syrian refugees by year’s end.
While the Paris terror attacks delayed that goal, Canada, with 11 percent of the U.S. population, brought in 26,000 Syrian refugees in less than four months. It aims to reach 50,000 by the end of 2016.
The contrast between the United States and Canada is starker when it comes to public attitudes. A week after a Muslim couple went on a shooting rampage in San Bernardino, California, killing fourteen people, the Toronto Star splashed “Welcome to Canada” on its front page, with the headline translated into Arabic underneath.
A Canadian government worker involved in refugee resettlement, who spoke on condition of anonymity, attributes the difference to “broad public support for refugee resettlement and the will of the federal government.” He says Canada “mobilized and sent 500 officials to the region” to speed the process. He adds that Trudeau’s government “wants to reconstruct an image of a multicultural and inclusive society. That still has some currency in Canada.”
It’s a rejection too of the former Conservative government’s vision of Canada as a warrior state. The Conservatives, the worker says, “put in roadblocks to inhibit the resettlement program” which have since been dismantled, although there is still a bias against single men coming from Syria.
Opposition to refugee resettlement in Canada is mainly confined to minor politicians and scattered incidents, like an arson attack on a mosque in Ontario. It also pales next to the United States.
“We’ve seen a tremendous spike in anti-Muslim rhetoric and hate crimes,” Hooper says. “Donald Trump opened the floodgates of anti-Muslim sentiment with his call to ban all Muslims from the U.S. We’re dealing with it on a daily basis.”
Demant of Amnesty International says hateful rhetoric “breeds fear and distrust in communities” and can lead to harmful public policies. One such policy proposal is a congressional bill titled the Refugee Program Integrity Restoration Act. Few think President Obama would sign it into law, but the Refugee Council USA blasted it in a press release, stating the bill “would dismantle the U.S. refugee admissions program.”
Dehabey says the Syrians with whom US Together works have been spared animosity: “Toledo is a very welcoming community. We never received any threats or racist messages after the Paris attacks. In fact, we got calls from people looking to help us out.”
Such welcoming attitudes are met with gratitude. Says Youssef, “We are here and we are loyal to this country now. I want to thank the American government for bringing us here and giving us life.
Aran Gupta has written for The Washinton Post, the Guardian, The Nation, Salon, YES! Magazine, Telesur, and many other publications. He is the author of the forthcoming Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food-Loving Chef's Inquiry into Taste (The New Press).
From the May issue of the Magazine.