The Refugee Challenge: Syrians in America

NEW YORK, 20 Sep. – Feroz Adnan, who arrived in the U.S. this past June, fidgeted with her cell phone and tried to hide the tears in her eyes when she talked about the problems she is facing as a refugee. “I am pregnant but I have not been able to see a doctor,” she said in Arabic.

Adnan arrived in Albany, New York, three months ago after escaping civil war in Syria and living in Jordan for four years. For a family who do not speak basic English, a task as simple as setting up a doctor’s appointment can be unsurmountable.

Waiel, 1, looks at the camera with fascination. He is the only child of Muhammad Osman and Feroz Adnan.


4.8 million Syrian refugees have fled the war-torn country so far, according to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. Data available on the U.S. State Department website shows that 14,477 Syrian refugees have made their way to the U.S. since March 2011. The spike in numbers came as a result President Obama’s decision to accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees during the last fiscal year.

The United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) works with nine official resettlement agencies and their affiliates to resettle families. Before a family arrives, the designated agency must find suitable accommodation and prepare for the newcomers’ immediate needs. Many Syrian refugees arrive in the U.S. expecting to live comfortably, only to be faced with resettlement obstacles presents problems such as language, housing, and finding jobs.

Finding homes for refugee families is usually the first task for resettlement agencies and this can be a difficult task. Corine Dehabey, Director of US Together, said landlords often fear refugees will not pay the rent.

Dehabey’s agency is an affiliate of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) – one of the nine official resettlement agencies – and, so far, her team has resettled 110 Syrian refugees in Toledo, Ohio.

“The lease is going to be in their [refugees] names, the refugees don’t have jobs and, of course, the stigma with refugees always worries everybody,” said Dehabey in a phone interview.

Refugee families cannot choose the housing. They are expected to be satisfied with whatever is offered to them by the resettlement agency. Zakwan Abbara, 48, and his family of four fled from Homs, Syria, to Jordan in 2012. The family moved to Jersey City, New Jersey, in July 2016 and, upon arrival, their resettlement agency took them to a place that Abbara said was “not livable.”

“There were insects and cockroaches all over the place,” said Abbara, speaking in Arabic to a translator. “I did not want to live here but they said this is what is available,” he
added, almost with a sense of resignation in his tone.

The type of support offered by agencies varies because of overstretched staff members and limited funding. Each refugee was entitled to a one-time assistance of $ 2,025 during the last fiscal year. This year, the assistance is expected to go up to $ 2,050. Within this budget, a resettlement agency is required to pay the initial rent, get basic items such as furniture and clothes, and make arrangements for food. Refugees are required to pay back the cost of travel to the U.S.

Zakwan Abbara, 48, worked in Jordan for 18 years before moving back to his native Homs, Syria, in 2007. He has three children and he wants all three to get quality education in the U.S.

To support refugees, resettlement agencies have to supplement government support by fundraising and holding donation drives of their own. Technically, an agency is supposed to close a case within 90 days but experts say this is hardly enough time to fully resettle a family.

Often, the level of support a family gets comes down to efforts of individual case managers. Some families find help local community members who contribute with furniture, food, toys, translation skills, and rent. Adnan, for example, said she was finally able to obtain a doctor’s appointment with help from a woman at the local mosque. She said her case manager did not help her. Similarly, for the Islamic festival of Eid, the local Islamic center in Albany gave the refugee families new clothes.

There has been debate over accepting Syrian refugees in the U.S. amidst growing security concerns. Following the attacks in Paris last year, 31 U.S. state governors spoke against accepting Syrian refugees in their states.

The idea that accepting Syrian refugees will lead to terrorism in the U.S. is “misconceived” said Erol Kekic, Executive Director of Church World Service (CWS), an agency that has resettled over 1, 573 Syrian refugees. This sensationalism, Kekic said, is one of the major problems faced by his agency in resettling refugees.

Kekic pointed out that refugees have to go through a lengthy screening consisting of a series of interviews and background checks run by multiple U.S. agencies. The process can take between 18-24 months for completion. “People who end up being here are really the most vulnerable refugees who themselves are the victims of terror,” said Kekic.
Not all families feel unwelcome. Heba Muhammad Al-Falah, 29, from Homs, Syria, said the debate does not affect her. Like Adnan, the mother of six came to Albany, New York, in June 2016 and faced more basic problems that have an effect on day-to-day life. In the three months that the family has been here, Falah has not been able to register for English language classes because she has no childcare. Three of her six children do not go to school.

Heba Muhammad Al-Falah’s daughters Lamar (4), Shehad (7), and Ghazal (3) at a mosque in Albany, New York. Lamar, Ghazal, and their 9-month-old sister Marya (not in picture) do not go to school.

Falah’s husband, Aiman Al-Osman, was unable to keep his job at a cleaning company because he does not know the English language. Even if he finds another job, Osman will get a blue-collar job, making it difficult to make ends meet for a large family.

“It is hard to find more professional jobs for refugees especially if their language proficiency is not high,” Kekic pointed out.

The U.S. government has announced a resettlement target of 110,000 refugees during the current fiscal year. With a 30 percent increase in the refugee intake, both resettlement agencies and refugees are in for a stiff challenge.


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