A Syrian Refugee’s Difficult Path to a New Home in US


Downtown El Cajon. / Wikimedia Commons


Mohamed, a former chef from Syria, can still remember the moment he received the call from the UN telling him that he and his family had been approved to move to the United States.

“They said ready or not, you’re going to America tomorrow,” he said in Arabic, through a translator.

One week later, Mohamed, 43, was on a flight from Amman, Jordan to San Diego. The trip took two days but when he arrived in El Cajon, a San Diego suburb that houses a large population of Iraqi and Syrian refugees, he knew that starting a new life in a foreign country would be tough but worth it in the end.

“We are happy here,” he said. “We miss the memories but we are ten times happier here than we were in Syria.”

The Syrian civil war, now in its sixth year, has resulted in the deaths of 470,000 people and the displacement of more than 12 million people from their homes. There are currently 4.9 million Syrian refugees, half of which are children, according to data from the UN Human Rights Council. Following President Trump’s executive order on March 6, the U.S. decreased the number of refugees the country takes in from 110,000 under former president Barack Obama to 50,000 in 2017. The order also suspended immigration for 90 days from six majority-Muslim countries: Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.

Mohamed, whose full name is being withheld because of a fear of reprisals,  is one of 84,995 refugees from Syria admitted to the U.S. in 2016. He owned a restaurant for 38 years in Damascus,  where he lived with his wife Basema, 38, and their six children. He was a chef who loved cooking traditional Syrian food including hummus, falafel, ghanouj, and kebab. Their daughters liked helping out at the restaurant after school while the sons liked playing soccer or football.

When the war broke out after the 2011 Arab Spring protests and the Syrian government responded by killing and imprisoning hundreds of demonstrators, Mohamed knew that it was no longer safe for him and his family to remain in Damascus. In January 2012, more than 26 people died when a car bomb exploded in the city. In August 2013, a chemical attack using sarin resulted in the deaths of more than 1,700 people, according to U.S. estimates.

They fled to Jordan, where they lived with friends for the next five years. It was difficult for Mohamed to find a job but he was eventually able to work in a restaurant for two years. He applied for refugee status through the migration agency at the UN.

After a challenging vetting process, which involved attending an orientation at UN offices every four months, they were approved to move to the U.S. last June. When they arrived, the International Rescue Committee, one of the largest NGOs assisting refugees and the agency that helped resettle Mohamed’s family, gave them $2,000 in welcome money and food stamps.

San Diego has received more than 1,000 Syrian refugees since last May—more than any other city in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center. The city has continued to take in higher numbers of Syrian refugees in recent years, with a 64 percent increase in arrivals in October 2016 compared to 2015, according to the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

El Cajon, where many of the street signs are in Arabic and bank tellers and schools have begun hiring Arabic speakers, has become a major neighborhood where Syrians resettle after fleeing violence and persecution in their home country.

In the last 30 years, more Iraqis have immigrated to El Cajon and comprise a quarter of the city’s population. More than 60,000 Chaldeans, or Iraqi Christians, also live there and have created an Arabic-speaking community that makes it easier for Syrian refugees to adjust to life in a new country.

There are three other resettlement agencies in San Diego and not enough resources for refugees when they arrive. To counter this, Heart 4 Refugees, a non-profit, offers assistance to refugees that the resettlement agencies cannot offer, including dental assistance, transportation, and ESL classes. The organization has also started a program that connects families in San Diego to Syrian refugees. They can “adopt” a Syrian family and assist them in finding jobs, driving around the city, and even finding furniture and books for the children.

“We were told not to give the families the cash, so I got the community involved and was able to raise over $2,000 in a Go-Fund-Me to help them with rent and loans,” said Aubrey Good, a volunteer at IRC who adopted Mohamed’s family.

Before the war, Mohamed had been financially successful in Damascus. Last December, Good arrived at Mohamed’s apartment to find springs coming out of their mattresses and a kitchen table that was split down the middle. Good spoke with Basema, who had no idea she was scheduled for a gallbladder removal surgery because the family’s medical insurance hadn’t provided them with a translator.

“The resettlement agencies have really great social services but they’re so bogged down that they’re letting people slip through the cracks,” Good said. “And that’s where the sponsors fill in.”

Although Mohamed and Basema don’t speak English, their children are in immersion programs at school and are picking up the language at a rapid pace. Despite the language barrier, Aubrey and her husband John have formed personal connections with Mohamed and his family.

“A very special moment for us was when we told them we could help with their rent,” Aubrey said. “The mom told us ‘Thank you very much. We love you,’ in Arabic.”


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