Relief organizations offer crucial help
Yousef, who asked that his last name not be used, owned and operated a store called Future Center Technologies, selling and installing satellite TV equipment. Living in Damascus, Syria was becoming increasingly unsafe for 39-year-old Yousef, his wife, and three-month-old twin daughters. In July 2012, he and his family fled, embarking on a journey that, four long years later, finally brought them to Miami, Florida.
“The last weeks before leaving were full of fear, pain and sleeplessness,” Youssef, who asked not to publish his last name for security reasons, told The Media Line. “I had been imprisoned (in Syria) without charges and beaten mercilessly. When I was released from detention, Assad loyalists threatened our lives if we didn’t leave,” he said, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The six-year long civil war in Syria has created a ripple effect throughout the world. Millions of refugees, searching for safety, have come to Europe and the United States, with hundreds landing in south Florida.
The family’s exit from Syria was wrought with danger…and heartbreak. They left Damascus for As-Swida with two brothers, one sister-in-law, three nieces, one nephew, and one brother-in-law. However, the two brothers were killed while still in Syria. Safa, Yousef’s wife, had family members in other countries and was able to get permission to enter Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. But Yousef and his children weren’t able to enter because they had left their IDs and passports with Jordanian officials at the Za’atari refugee camp.
“We left Damascus in July 2012 under threats and intimidation from gangs associated with Bashar al-Assad,” Youssef said. “We took two buses with our family southwest from Damascus to the city of As-Sweida, and from there to Um-Walad village – outside of Dar’a city. From June to the middle of October we lived in Um-Walad, which was being bombed constantly. To escape the bombing, we had to hide in a church in Jbib, another village south of Um-Walad, for two weeks. On October 10, 2012, we walked across the border into Jordan at night. The Free Syrian Army had taken ten thousand Syrian lira (about $50) from us to provide protection from the Syrian Army which was shooting and killing civilians who were trying to leave the country. Children fleeing with their families would be given medication to make them sleep so that they wouldn’t cry – alerting Syrian Army soldiers.”
While relieved to be out of Syria, Yousef and his family soon faced dire circumstances in Jordan.
“After entering Jordan, Jordanian security personnel took our papers and identification and interrogated us. The next day, we were bused to the Za’atari refugee camp where we lived in a tent for four days. We wanted to leave Za’atari because of the hot, dusty conditions and lack of drinkable water in the camp but it was not allowed. Our twin daughters were three months old and there wasn’t any milk. We bribed a Jordanian working in security with 350 Saudi Arabian dinar (almost $100) who put us on a list of people who could leave the camp. We used false names to pass through the security gate, leaving our Syrian IDs and paperwork behind. We lived in the village of Kufranja outside of the city of Ajloun, Jordan, for three years, and then the city of Irbid for eight months before coming to the US.”
Now, Yousef and his family are miles away from war bombings and shootings and have lived in Miami for eight months, after first arriving to the United States in Houston, Texas last August.
His daughters are five years old, and he is learning English and working in Miami, while trying to adjust to the American lifestyle. An imam at his local mosque helped Yousef find a job working in a warehouse.
“Life in America is very different. It’s much faster paced. America is also very procedural – everything is a process. For example, the health and medical requirements (clinic visits) for enrolling our daughters in kindergarten are demanding and time consuming unlike in the Middle East,” said Yousef. “Learning English and job searching has been the hardest part of living in America. The US and Middle East are very different.”
Two organizations are working to make the transition of incoming refugees easier, and the refugees welcome their presence.
“We helped 3,000 refugee families in 2016,” Abdul Rauf Khan, Assistant Executive Director of Programs & Revenue at the ICNA Relief USA, told The Media Line. ICNA is a charitable organization that helps refugees as well as promoting community initiatives aiding underprivileged school children, hunger prevention, and domestic disaster relief. “About 60 percent (of those we help) are Syrian. After (President Trump’s) election they got kind of stopped, but in March more started coming.”
Rauf Khan, has been working at ICNA for about eight years. ICNA is a Muslim organization that, according to their website, “feels the responsibility to help and support the needy as our religious responsibility.” They have multiple locations around the United States.
Rauf Khan, who works at the field office in Boca Raton, Florida, is one of three paid employees at ICNA. The rest are volunteers. Together, they strive to uphold the ICNA’s mission, seeking: “to alleviate human suffering by providing caring and compassionate service to victims of adversities and survivors of disasters. ICNA Relief USA strives to build healthy communities, strengthen families and create opportunities for those in despair while maintaining dignity and advocating for basic human needs.”
“We have been helping refugees for two decades now,” said Rauf Khan. “We have a refugee resource center. We teach them to become self-sufficient, break the language barrier, help them learn to talk.”
ICNA also tries to help the refugees find jobs using skills they have already developed.
In South Florida, the ICNA is helping about 54 Syrian families. In the whole state, there are around 125 families.
After President Trump’s travel and refugee ban earlier this year, organizations like the ICNA, and the refugees they help, were concerned. Despite the news, Rauf Khan says the ICNA’s efforts have not really changed.
“We have helped them [refugees[ before the [government’s] policies were implemented,” said Rauf Khan. “His policies I think are helping, supporters are more willing to help. When you push people into a corner, people can help more. The Muslim community felt they needed to step up and help more. We have 150-200 Muslim donors.”
South of Boca, in Miami, Martine Dherte serves as a senior case worker at the International Rescue Committee, where she’s worked for the past seven years. She oversees the resettlement program and matching grants employment. The IRC’s headquarters are in Belgium, where Dherte is from, though they have 28 offices around the United States.
The arrival of refugees in Miami has “actually been a positive response. Refugees that have been resettled here have been warmly welcomed,” said Dherte.
The number of refugees that the IRC receives each year varies. They received 170 last year, but since the ban started, arriving refugees has been much slower. Typically, refugees from Syria come with their families, around six people or less. The number of refugees from Syria has increased over the two years that her office has been taking Syrian refugees.
Like the ICNA, staff and volunteers at the IRC work to make transitions easier for families and individuals, who have often experienced tremendous trauma and loss. Volunteers, who have gone through training, assist with needs such as transporting the refugees and their families around town, or serving as Arabic translators.
The IRC is notified that they will be receiving a family just two weeks prior to the family’s arrival. They find housing for the family and then pick them up from the airport.
“The first month is core services. We assist them in applying for all the benefits (such as) food stamps, and take them to get their immunizations. It is the most intensive – they receive cultural and job orientation/preparedness (how to prepare for jobs, interviews, learn language skills/vocabulary), what is life in the US, what are the bills you need to pay, laws, etc.,” Dherte told The Media Line.
Dherte, who speaks six languages and originally studied architecture, has spent time in Africa and has done volunteering throughout her life. She wants to help others, and feels understanding of people’s circumstances.
“The ban is creating quite a bit of problems for many refugees,” said Dherte. “We are talking on a daily basis with government officials, on a local base with the Florida government, to try to lift the ban. We are doing everything we can to accept refugees.”
The IRC was the organization that helped Yousef and his family upon their arrival in Miami.
“IRC-Miami is a very good organization. They paid our rent and utilities including phone service for four months. They helped us apply for public benefits. They took care of our initial medical and dental appointments such as scheduling and transportation. They provided us an ESL tutor. They are assisting us in enrolling our daughters in school. They tried to help me find a job. I thank the IRC very much for helping my family,” said Yousef.
Though Yousef has noticed that Americans “are very kind and generous” he still feels love for his home country.
“Of course we miss living in Syria. It’s our country. I love it,” said Yousef.
However, the road to a safer Syria is perilous and uncertain and who or what to return is not guaranteed.
“I hope that Bashar al-Assad is deposed. He and the Syrian army have committed genocide,” Youssef said angrily. Perhaps everything will be better when he is removed. We would consider returning sometime in the future – Damascus is our emotional home – but I am still afraid of life in Syria, with limited family there (most have been resettled variously in Lebanon, Belgium, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Turkey) and no physical home to go back to.”
Michaela Garretson is a student at Florida Atlantic University and a student journalist with The Media Line