BALTIMORE – Off the quiet Sinclair Lane in Northeast Baltimore are brick apartment complexes set against the green backdrop of Moore’s Run Park — the complexes that are the new home to three Syrian refugee families recently resettled in the United States.
The Antar family sat with the al-Shrabati family in the Antars’ dimly lit living room on a chilly December night, having moved in mere weeks ago, looking back on their rugged journey to the U.S. in hopes of moving forward and rebuilding a different future than the one they once envisioned back home in Syria.
“The first dream is to get medical help for my son, and the education of the kids is very important,” his father, Fadi Antar, 25, said. “And my dream is to have a house here.”
Omar, just 3 years old, has vanishing white matter disease and cannot walk or talk. There is no cure. They also have a year-old daughter.
Community of support
The Antars are one of four Syrian refugee families who originally moved to Baltimore. The families live in the same complex, and provide moral support for each other. The fourth family moved recently to the Washington suburbs. All of the families spoke in Arabic. They are continuing to learn and improve on their English – just one of many adaptations to living in the U.S.
“Thank God, we are four families now and we are having this one family and we are obliged to help each other,” Yehya al-Shrabati said.
He works as a contractor in training. He has been in the U.S. nearly a year with his wife and five kids, including a newborn. He also helped Ibrahim al-Farookh, 37, the father of seven children of the fourth family who started out in the complex, by driving him to the grocery store. Farookh is blind after catching a disease in a refugee camp in Lebanon. His family’s application for refugee status was given top priority from the United Nations because of this.
“If Abu Saleh, the two other refugee families were not here, we would not stay here. They give emotional support,” said Abir al-Farookh, Ibrahim’s wife. “Abu Saleh works most of the day, but he calls six or seven times every day to make sure everything is good with my husband.”
“God never leaves anyone alone,” she finished.
Calls for action
Before resettling in the U.S., Antar and his wife and two kids lived in a basement in Jordan, where they struggled to make a living after fleeing the war in Syria. Antar worked in construction, but was finding it difficult for the family to get by. In the U.S., refugees are given an initial eight months of assistance, according to the International Rescue Committee in Baltimore, and are eligible for any assistance that a U.S. citizen can receive, including food stamps. Their travel expenses are also paid for, but they are expected to pay these back once they are on their feet and working.
“There’s a huge difference between Americans and Jordanians,” Antar said. “Jordanians were thinking we were competing with them. They never smiled at us, never welcomed us, because they thought we were stealing their jobs. There’s a huge difference. They turned our backs on us. We love the people here, they are very nice.”
But at a Feb. 19 panel on Syrian refugees in America., hosted by the Brookings Institution, activists from Syria, some who now live in the U.S. on asylum status, had a gloomier outlook. Those seeking asylum must meet the definition of a refugee, meaning that they “have been persecuted or fear they will be persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality, and/or membership in a particular social group or political opinion.” The major difference between refugees and those seeking asylum is that asylum seekers are already in the U.S. when they apply.
“Nowadays, it’s not only that they feel that the world has abandoned them, but they also feel that everyone is actually against them. It’s not that everyone is just standing aside,” Qutaiba Idlbi, who is originally from Damascus and lives in Washington, said.
Dr. Taha Bali, originally from Homs, now an assistant in neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital, has been living in the U.S. longer than all the other speakers. He said he sees the shift in U.S. attitude toward Syria policy the most disappointing of all, specifically referring to those who call for Bashar al-Assad to remain in power as the better alternative to ISIS.
“A few years later, with all the destruction, with all the death, there is nothing more disheartening to someone who has been living in America for six or seven years, to see the convergence between the right and left, and basically calling Bashar al-Assad the lesser evil,” Bali said. “This is incredibly unfortunate, and it’s quite antithetical to everything that America stands for.”
Kassem Eid, an activist who witnessed the Aug. 21, 2013, chemical weapons attack in Moadamiya and who is now living in Washington waiting for his asylum application to be processed, said a great source of pessimism for him today lies in keeping up with the U.S. presidential election news.
“Especially in the past six months since the presidential election started, the hardest part of my day is, after waking up and opening Facebook or Twitter, is just to listen and watch all the crazy statements I’m hearing from the candidates, about refugees, about Syria, about Muslims,” Eid said. “Ben Carson describes us as dogs. Donald Trump, I don’t think I need – even have to talk about him,” he said to gales of laughter from the audience.
Idlbi said he hopes to serve as the bridge of cultures to stop what he calls the East-West “propaganda war” by representing both the Syrian community and what being American is. Asked what still gives the panelists’ hope, Idlbi said it was the positive response from American citizens.
“When I get donations for a toy drive from Oklahoma – when I got 2,000 toys from there, when I get emails from South Carolina telling me I have a space in my basement, or like, we have our guest room and we would like to host a Syrian refugee. That’s where I get hope from.”
President Barack Obama has pledged to bring 10,000 Syrian refugees to the U.S. this year. Since October, 950 Syrian refugees have resettled in the country, bringing the U.S. total to 2,819 over five years. Neighboring Canada has already brought in its quota of 25,000 refugees in less than four months.
“I had a friend who applied at the same time, for 18 months now he is waiting,” Antar said. He said he believes it could be because of the current political climate in the U.S. regarding Syrian refugees that the process is taking so long, specifically the pushback from state governors and House Republicans.
“We are treating cancer with bandages, that’s what we are doing with the refugee policy,” Idlbi said.
The speakers at the Brookings event said it’s important to address the political solution to Syria to stop the bloodshed and refugee crises. Solutions they brought up include safe zones in Syria for civilians wishing to escape both the regime’s barrel bombs, as well as ISIS. They also believe Russia should not be involved in international peace talks because it is still bombing the country.
“If countries were willing to do something about it, there would be no more war,” Abir said. “If Obama wants to end the war there, he’s able to do it. Now Russia is on the ground, and everyone is just watching. There is nothing we can do except pray.”
The situation in Syria
The revolution started in March 2011, when a group of children from the small southern town of Daraa, where the Farookh family is originally from, spray painted “The people want to topple the regime” across a school wall. Their arrest and physical torture by the regime sparked outrage, leading to demonstrations and a brutal response from Assad forces. That in turn led to the revolution that has turned into a bloody civil war, with nearly 5 million registered refugees worldwide and a death toll of 470,000, according to the Syrian Center for Policy Research. The United Nations has stopped counting the rising death toll due to concerns about data accuracy.
“The Syrian people, they didn’t go out against their government because they wanted a better economy, because they wanted a better car to ride in,” Idlbi said. “No. They went against their government because they wanted to be able to breathe. They wanted to be able to say that this is right, and this is wrong, without being tortured to death.”
Today, the bloodshed continues while the international community is at a loss of what to do, and Russia involved in airstrikes that are said to be targeting ISIS, but are really targeting opposition strongholds, and striking civilians. On Saturday, a ceasefire brokered by the U.S. and Russia and approved by the U.N. Security Council went into effect. However, that ceasefire was broken just a day later, with reports of Russian airstrikes hitting six towns and villages.
“Every second, someone is dying, as time is passing, more youth are dying,” Abir said. “My cousin was killed four months ago. They [Assad regime] took his body and cut his head. My aunt was killed in a shelling a year ago. My cousin also was arrested seven months ago, and nobody knows where he is.”
Both the Farookhs and the Antars hope to return to Syria one day. Abir said the economic situation is what finally forced them to leave.
“Before the revolution, it was like heaven,” Abir said. “The only good thing here is it’s safe.”
The Antar family is from Homs, where much of the destruction from the war has taken place.
“The way you’re looking at America, that’s how we used to see Homs,” Antar said with pride.
Also like the Antars, the Farookh family came here due to medical necessity.
“On a personal level, the only reason we came here was because we thought there would be a cure for my husband’s eye disease, but it turns out there is no cure,” Abir said.
She and her family watch Arabic news, and are not as in tune with the talk about Syrian refugees on American television. For them, their concern is still on the situation in Syria.
“The washed kid story on the shore is nothing compared to what’s going on inside,” Abir said. “It’s good he was washed like this, and not killed by shelling or bombing. It’s nothing compared to what’s happening inside.”
She is referring to the widely circulated photo of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old who washed ashore in Turkey, sparking widespread sympathy and a call for countries to do more for refugees.
Abir’s husband, Ibrahim, returned from grocery shopping on a sunny fall day, taking a seat on the sofa in their living room. Toys littered the floor where their daughter, Aya, 5, was playing.
“Although I have my family and everything here, my heart and soul is back in Syria,” he said.
“What do you mean, you’re the reason I’m here” his wife joked. She, like most other refugee families, hopes to return to Syria one day, if the situation there settles down. Right now they are not optimistic.
“We can’t guarantee our life for tomorrow, so we don’t know after 10 years what will happen,” Abir said. “For me personally, I would go back home but I don’t know if the kids would want to go back.”
The Farookhs recently moved to College Park, Md., a Washington suburb, to be closer to Dar-us-Salaam school, which their children attend.
“We will never, ever forget Syria. Even if we stay here for years, we will always have Syria in mind.”
Reach reporter Heather Khalifa at email@example.com or 202-408-1488. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
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