Starting Life From Zero: Syrian, Iraqi Refugees Begin Again in South Florida

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A cellphone photo of Amal, Abdulhamit and their family taken when they first arrived in the U.S. four months ago. The family settled in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The photo of the cellphone was taken October 12. Lucy Westcott

Learning English, finding a job and overcoming culture shock are some of the challenges many refugees face when they first arrive in the United States. Often, these hurdles are managed while dealing with trauma and injuries sustained from living in a warzone.

Further down that list, perhaps, is encountering the large, green iguanas commonly found in their new home state.

Amal and Abdulhamit (who goes by Abdi) and their four teenage children (who asked not to be identified by their family name out of concerns for relatives still in Syria) left Aleppo in 2012 and joined the nearly 2 million Syrian refugees who fled from their country’s brutal war to neighboring Turkey. They arrived in the U.S. four months ago and moved into a one-story yellow stucco and brick house at the end of a short road in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Though they knew they were headed for the U.S. several months before traveling, they learned the Miami area would be their final destination just one week before they left.  

A large smile spreads across the face of Rama, the family’s 19-year-old daughter and main breadwinner, when she recalls looking up Miami on the Internet while in Turkey. Stylishly dressed in a lace top, brown jeans and high-heeled sandals, she remembers being “really happy.” The family envisioned living in an apartment on the beach.

"Then we came here and saw the iguanas," Abdi says, through a translator. The spiky, scaly beasts can grow up to six feet in length and several family members say they’re afraid of them. The day Newsweek visited the family, a three-foot-long iguana dropped out of a tree next to their three-bedroom house and rustled around in the grass below.  

4_1029_amalabdi_family From left to right: Diana, Rami, Rama, Abdi, Amal and Julia outside their Fort Lauderdale home, October 12. Rama, 19, is the family's main breadwinner, while the other three children are waiting to go to school. Lucy Westcott/Newsweek

More than 4 million refugees have fled Syria since the civil war began in 2011 and millions more remain injured and displaced inside the country, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). Abdi and his family are among the 1,700 Syrian refugees who have been resettled in the U.S. since 2013, according to the latest figures from the State Department. While the U.S. announced earlier this year that 10,000 Syrian refugees will be resettled in the U.S. in 2016, resettlement agencies such as the Church World Service (CWS) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) are calling for that number to be increased to 100,000. UNHCR has referred 19,646 Syrian refugees to the U.S. for consideration since 2013.

The U.S. resettles around 70,000 refugees a year, although the ceiling will be increased to 85,000 in 2016 and 100,000 in 2017, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced last month. Ten-thousand Iraqis were resettled in the U.S. last year, making them the largest refugee group, followed by those from Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Bhutan. The U.S. refugee application process can take between 18 and 24 months, largely because refugees receive the most stringent background checks—the details of which are classified—of any group entering the U.S. Some Republican lawmakers have painted Syrian refugees as a threat to the U.S., yet security is so tight that Syrians undergo an additional background check that no other refugee group receives, according to the State Department.

5_amal These photos of a younger Amal are among the mementos the family brought with them from Syria to Turkey and eventually to the U.S. Photo taken October 12. Lucy Westcott/Newsweek

Over Turkish coffee in their living room in mid-October, Abdi’s family recount their journey from Aleppo to Turkey and, eventually, the U.S., where they are now being resettled by the IRC. "There is a war and we were scared,” Rama says of the family’s decision to leave Syria. “There were bombs, a lot of bombs, around us.”

The family paid smugglers to help them make an 18-hour journey to the Turkish border that involved ducking behind trees and in valleys to avoid police. Abdi, who has suffered multiple strokes, was carried on their backs. Julia, the family’s 17-year-old daughter, who harbors dreams of becoming a lawyer, remembers ripping her jacket on a wire fence at the border, where a car was waiting to take them to Istanbul.

"We had the intention to go back [to Syria]. We thought we were going to go back in two to three months,” Amal says in Arabic through a translator. “But the situation was getting worse and worse—not by the day, but by the hour. We started to lose hope after a while.”

6_1029_rama Rama holds up dresses she made while working in a clothing factory when the family lived in Turkey, October 12. The family left Aleppo in 2012 and lived in Istanbul before arriving in Florida. Lucy Westcott/Newsweek

Rama and Rami, the family’s shy 16-year-old son, both worked 11-hour days, six days a week, in a clothing factory in Istanbul, while Julia and Diana, 13, who wears a white T-shirt with a Mickey Mouse print made by Rama, stayed at home with their parents. Amal didn’t see a future for her children in Turkey and knew they had to leave for good.

They are safe and all together in Florida, but their new life is not an easy one. Abdi is disabled and unable to work, while Amal was recently diagnosed with a serious illness. Julia, Rami and Diana can’t start school until their vaccinations and medical checks are completed and spend a lot of time in their rooms. Rama, who speaks both English and Turkish, started work as a waitress at an Arabic restaurant six weeks ago and is supporting her whole family. She breaks down, sobbing, when talking about how she wants to become a doctor.

All four children hope to return to Syria one day.

8_1029_amal_coat Amal wraps herself up in a coat she brought with her to Florida from Syria, October 12. Lucy Westcott/Newsweek

Florida, particularly Miami and Fort Lauderdale—a cruise hub that considers itself so laid back, calypso music alerts airline passengers when the airport baggage carousel starts—has a history of resettling refugees, mainly Cubans and Haitians. Between October 1, 2014, and August 31, 84 Syrian refugees were resettled in Florida, nearly 4 percent of the state’s resettlement total for that year, according to State Department data. Cubans made up 40 percent of the state’s refugees last year and many refugee resources are geared toward Spanish speakers. Suzy Cop, executive director of the IRC’s Miami office, said improving partnerships with the local Muslim community and increasing the number of Arabic-speaking staff are necessities as more Syrians arrive over the coming months.

In the living room of their apartment in North Miami Beach, 10 miles south of Fort Lauderdale, Walid and Dalia are having a disagreement familiar with couples the world over: Walid says they met in May or June 2012, while Dalia says it was in April. Known as the “lovebirds”—they met while applying for refugee certificates in Jordan—the couple arrived in the U.S. six weeks ago with their two daughters Ritaj, 2, and Tahani, eight months, and live in a sparsely furnished unit in a pink apartment building. The family are in limbo until the end of the month when they move to Orlando, where there’s a stronger Arab community than in North Miami Beach and Walid has job prospects.

9_1029_walid Walid, a refugee from Syria, and his two-year-old daughter Ritaj in the living room of their North Miami Beach apartment, October 11. Walid's family will soon move to Orlando, where he has been offered job prospects. Lucy Westcott/Newsweek

"The whole reason why I decided to move to the U.S. is to have a better future for my daughters," says Walid, 34, who left Daraa in southern Syria after being shot in the foot by forces he says were from Assad's regime.

Like Abdi’s family, Walid and Dalia are being resettled by the IRC and received basic furniture through the group: a bed, cribs, a sofa, two tables. Both families have been helped enormously by the local Muslim community, who take them to the local Arabic store to stock up on specialty staples like olives, bread, cheese and yogurt that are unavailable in the local Walmart. Many refugees have extremely high expectations of the U.S., says Cop, and can often feel disappointed by the limited funds and furnishings they receive upon arrival.

The U.S. refugee resettlement program lasts for 90 days. Through State Department funding, the IRC provides core services like health assessments and food stamp and Social Security enrollment, which is expected to be finished in the first 30 days. A matching grant program, funded through the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, which provides additional cash assistance and case management, takes over for the following two months. Within six months of their arrival, the government expects refugees to be self-sufficient and employed.

13_1029_westpalmbeach_mosque_1 Outside the West Palm Beach Muslim Community mosque, October 12. Mazloum, Jamilah and their family, Iraqi refugees who arrived in Florida in 2012, live in a house opposite the mosque. Lucy Westcott/Newsweek

An additional burden is the cost of the airfare to the U.S., which refugees must agree to pay back to the U.S. government before they fly. They don’t have to start repaying the loan until several months after their arrival, says Cop.

"We were told [paying back the cost of the plane ticket] would be $70 a month,” says Walid. “I have no choice but to agree to it because that's the only way I could get a flight over here." The cost of an airline ticket for the family of four was $2,174, he says.

While it’s too early to draw conclusions on how well Syrian refugees become integrated in the U.S., Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), says one challenge in their first few weeks and months is the lack of Syrians already in the U.S. compared to groups such as Iraqis or Cubans, who often have the benefit of family reunification. In South Florida, the Muslim community has stepped in to fill this gap, but the isolation can make everything more difficult.

“Having the community base here already makes integration easier,” says Capps. “[But] in the long run, it’s not clear that having really strong enclaves helps.”

Syrians, like most refugees, will likely start off in low-wage service and retail industry jobs for a while, a frustrating prospect for those who were educated and successful back home, says Capps. One way to combat this, he says, is for the U.S. government to increase English language resources, which can help refugees find better work quicker. A June report from the MPI on refugee integration found between 2009 and 2011, 42 percent of refugees who had lived in the U.S. for five years or less received food stamps, although dependence on benefit programs decreased the longer they lived in the U.S.

Another challenge facing new Syrians in the U.S. is shedding the deeply instilled fear of their fellow countrymen, says Sarab Al-Jijakli, 39, a Syrian-American community organizer and national president of the Network for Arab-American Professionals of New York.

11_1029_hammady From left to right: Jamilah, Namaa, Mazloum, Rasool and Mariam in the living room of their West Palm Beach home, October 12. The family left Iraq after years of war and being harassed by the men who kidnapped Mazloum, who was held in captivity for three days. Lucy Westcott/Newsweek

“Syrians have been raised to fear one another. It’s not like as a community we were extremely tight pre-revolution because we feared each other,” says Al-Jijakli. “We were always afraid that if somebody said something in the wrong way about the regime, it would somehow get back to the [Syrian secret service] that was watching everyone [in the U.S.]. It would impact family back home or would impact us the next time we went back to our mother country."

Al-Jijakli has spent the past several years mobilizing the Syrian-American community to support and raise money for refugees and connecting activists on the ground in Syria to U.S. media. Still, he says the community did not expect the enormous flow of refugees out of Syria and onto boats bound for Europe, a crisis that escalated over the summer.

"I don't think anyone was prepared for the magnitude of what we see today,” said Al-Jijakli.

As they continue to find their feet in America, Abdi, Amal, Walid, Dalia and their children can draw hope from an Iraqi family, who arrived as refugees in the U.S. nearly three years ago. They left Iraq in 2009 after years of war and harassment by the men who kidnapped their father, Mazloum. In 2007, he was taken from his job as a nurse in a Baghdad hospital and accused of helping terrorists. Mazloum, who had his leg broken while in captivity and uses crutches, says he didn’t ask patients whether they were Sunni, Shiite or Christian, as his only job was to help them.

14_1029_iraq_house This photo shows the remains of Jamilah and Mazloum's home after a rocket strike in 2003. They weren't home at the time and went to live with Jamilah's family. Photo taken October 12. Lucy Westcott/Newsweek

"They sent letters saying, brother, you have to leave the country or we will kidnap your children,” says Mariam, the family’s 15-year-old daughter, who translates for her father. “With it was a bullet, meaning you have to leave the house."

"We're so lucky, because he's still alive," says Jamilah, mother to Mariam, her 10-year-old sister Namaa, and brothers Moustafa, 19, and Rasool, 16. While Mazloum’s family left Iraq before the wide-scale destruction and death perpetrated by the Islamic State (ISIS) militant group in Iraq and Syria, Jamilah says her brother was killed in a car bomb in 2012 by an earlier iteration of the organization.

The family came to the U.S. after living as refugees in Lebanon for a couple of years and are now settled in a house next to the mosque on the grounds of the Muslim Community of West Palm Beach. During their first few months in Florida they lived in Lake Worth, five miles south of West Palm Beach, where Mariam and Jamilah say they were constantly asked why they were wearing hijabs and what they were hiding underneath. When they started going to school, the memories of Iraq and the hardships of Lebanon became easier to deal with, says Mariam.

12_1029_mazloum_1 Mazloum smiles in the his living room, October 12. The family's eldest son is in college and the children say they have been gradually able to deal with painful memories from Iraq and Lebanon, the country they fled to. Lucy Westcott/Newsweek

"We loved [Forest Hill] when we first came here because we didn't know that many Muslims before. When we lived in Lake Worth, there weren't many people that we knew,” says Mariam. “Here, we found our people."

The future looks promising for the family. Moustafa is studying dentistry at a local college and Rasool is looking forward to attending a student newspaper conference later this year. Mariam is enjoying school. But nearly three years on, the tears over what was left behind come just as easily to Mazloum and Jamilah as to the newly arrived Syrian families. They’re safe in America, but it will take a long time for their wounds to heal.

"The whole world is not the same as your country that you lived in, it doesn't feel the same,” says Mazloum. “Even if it's a bad place to live in Iraq, even if there's ISIS or many things going wrong, I prefer to live there."