Stories of Refugees, Part III: Out of Syria

‘My mother is a very good cook,” 18-year-old Basima said, her smile illuminating her face as she exchanged an affectionate glance with her mother. Basima recalled the time when they were living in Jordan and her mother, Nadeen, made Ma’amoul (shortbread cookies filled with dates, pistachios or other fruits and nuts) for Eid celebrations. One of their neighbors came by to marvel at how the smell of the cookies had permeated all the way to his house. “It was that intense.”

I asked Basima if she liked to cook, and she laughed, shaking her head. “She is so good,” she said, pointing to her mother. “I still have to learn.”

Basima, her three siblings and parents left Damascus when the war started in Syria in 2012. Her father had a clothing factory in a Damascus suburb. They had to leave their house and close down the factory when gun-toting militants began to swarm their neighborhood. For a short time, they rented in a safe place close to Damascus, but then militants arrived at their new location, and stories of kidnappings began to swirl. When schools were shut for a week, Nadeen decided it was enough. Even if schools reopened, she would be afraid to send her kids. Nowhere was safe. The family of six packed their belongings and made their way to Jordan.

They left behind their land, their way of life, the everyday sounds of their language, their sisters, brothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends and neighbors. And they carried with them their Syrian history.

In Jordan, Basima and her siblings planned to enroll in school, but they were not allowed access to services until they registered as refugees. And as refugees, they found life in Jordan untenable. She didn’t make any friends in Jordan, Basima told me. The kids in her school would sometimes point to her and say, “You came to our country. You took our jobs.” Nadeen nodded her head at her daughter’s words. As Syrian refugees, if they were caught working in Jordan, they would have been sent back to Syria. It was illegal for Syrians to work, Nadeen explained.

When the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees asked if they wanted to leave Jordan and move to America, the family quickly agreed. They arrived in San Francisco in March 2015.

There are no direct roads from Syria to America, so refugees need to be selected for admission and resettlement to our cities. The selection and vetting process is long and tedious and includes biometric checks, biographic checks, security checks and medical exams, as well as additional background checks immediately upon arrival in the United States.

Syrian refugees, in particular, are given an extra layer of scrutiny. The Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate works with USCIS’ Refugee, Asylum and International Operations Directorate by helping to “identify threats and suggesting topics for questioning,” per the Refugee Screening website of the USCIS.

The United States will admit 85,000 refugees in the 2016 fiscal year. From Oct. 1, 2015, to Aug. 31, 2016, the Department of State reports that 6,463 refugees have been resettled in California, which is about 8.9 percent of all arrivals. Some of these refugees who arrive in the Bay Area find new homes in Oakland and Sacramento and their vicinities. Prohibitive home prices in San Francisco and the Silicon Valley are probably one of the many reasons why Oakland and Sacramento have become places of choice in the Bay Area.

International Rescue Committee, a resettlement agency in Oakland, helped Basima’s family upon arrival into the United States. Volunteers received them at the San Francisco airport, and the family was given a one-time sum, set at $1,975 per person by the Department of State’s 2016 Reception and Placement Program (reset to $2025 for the 2017 fiscal year), to defray the initial costs of transitioning and have provided ongoing support as the family negotiated their new lives in America.

Refugees receive employment authorization upon arrival and are encouraged to find jobs and begin assimilating. The first thing her mother insisted on, after they set foot on the United States, was for Basima and her siblings to attend school even though there were only about six weeks left for the term to finish, Basima said chuckling softly.

Learning English became a priority for Basima’s family. In the beginning, only Basima and her siblings knew English. Their mother was used to making critical decisions for the family, but with her limited knowledge of English, Nadeen had to rely on her children to translate. It was difficult for her to accept this shift in balance, so she signed up for English classes. “She is also studying to be a dental assistant,” Basima added, a touch of pride in her voice. “I didn’t expect to go back to school, but my kids encouraged me to go back and study,” Nadeen emphasized.

I asked Basima where she saw herself 10 years from now. “I hope to finish college and start a nonprofit to help other refugees. Something focused on education,” she answered.

“We had such a beautiful country,” Nadeen said pensively. “I wish the war would stop and there is peace and Syria will remain Syria and not be divided into many different countries.” Nadeen feels happy that her husband found work as soon as they arrived and they have begun to make up for the life they left behind. “Although, right now, it feels like we are starting from zero,” she said.

Basima’s family have accepted the challenges and the possibilities that their journey out of Syria has brought them. But the thing that they like most about America? “That we don’t feel like refugees here.”

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco. Over the next few weeks, this column will focus on stories of refugees who have resettled in and around San Francisco.

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