The United States has accepted less than 2,000 Syrian refugees, with those who have made it to the richest country in the world forced to pay a high cost.
Amena* never wanted to leave Syria, but she didn’t have a choice. In 2012, the place she called home was hit by an airstrike and then destroyed by artillery fire amid intense fighting between government security forces and militants fighting for control over the city of Homs.
“We were trapped,” Amena told teleSUR. But in a conflict that has killed over a quarter-million people, she was one of the lucky ones, even though she lost almost everything: She got out. And she was even luckier than most of the 4.1 million Syrians who have escaped the horror that is their country today, managing to avoid both the squalid conditions of a refugee camp and the often deadly trip to an increasingly unwelcoming Europe.
The 36-year-old Amena, her husband and her four children—two boys and two girls, the oldest 14 and the youngest, at 2, knowing only a life on the run—made it to the United States after “lots of interviews,” “lots of paperwork” and two years of trying. Only 1,800 other Syrian refugees can say the same.
Twice as many people have fled Syria than fled Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and occupation, making Syria the source of what is by far the worst refugee crisis in the 21st Century. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, another 7.6 million Syrians are internally displaced, having fled their homes but not their country, at least not yet.
Making it to the U.S. is an exceedingly rare achievement, then. Nearly 100 times as many Syrians have sought refuge in Germany as in the United States, while considerably less wealthy countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan are host to millions of refugees
What’s it like hitting what many refugees—and many on the U.S. far right—see as the asylum seekers’ jackpot? Not so great, it turns out. As Amena discovered, the fact that the U.S. government deigns to allow a precious few war refugees resettle in the United States does not mean it will do much for them once they are in fact resettled.
Like many Americans, Amena has discovered that living in the land of the free is an exceedingly expensive endeavor. “There are a lot of bills,” she said, and it’s not easy coming up with the money to pay them.
A non-profit organization helped Amena and her family find a home in Connecticut, but it wasn’t ready when it was supposed to be; after landing in February 2015, she had to foot the bill for three days in a hotel. When she finally moved into her two-bedroom home—along with her husband and kids and two of her relatives, it was four to a room.
With just US$2,000 to her name, Amena was immediately asked to start paying rent; she could barely afford the cost of staying warm in chilly New England, where a heating bill can easily be hundreds of dollars. Possessing rudimentary English and little more, she went out and got a job—no one helped with that, either.
“I had to ask around,” she said.
And that is Amena’s biggest complaint: After getting off a plane more than 10,700 kilometers away from the place she called home for the first 35 years of her life, no one really told her what to do or what came next. A freshman in college gets a week-long orientation on the ins and outs of life on-campus, but a Syrian refugee gets nothing in the way of an introduction to life in an entirely new country—other than a bill. She and her family were resettled, and enormously grateful for that, but otherwise they were left on their own in a strange and often inhospitable land.
The charred remains of Amena’s possessions. According to the United Nations, more than 250,000 people have not made it out of Syria alive. | Photo: Amena
Things that are hard enough for a native English speaker Amena had to figure out on her own, like navigating the labyrinth social welfare bureaucracy, at the end of which is a relative pittance in a country that’s not so big on state-sponsored compassion. And after getting some money for food with which to feed her family she soon lost the little she had: the form that was supposed to come never came, she said.
It took her two months to get her benefits back a couple hundred dollars that was barely enough to cover the cost of groceries for parents with four kids when she even had it. She managed, but it was a daily struggle just to put food on her children’s plates.
Sarab Al-Jijakli is the national president of the Network of Arab-American Professionals and a community organizer in New York City. A Syrian-American, he tries to help refugees like Amena—the few that there are—acclimate to their new life in the United States. He told teleSUR that her story is not unusual.
“There’s a lot of expectation setting,” he said. Refugees spend years trying to get to the U.S., undergoing countless interviews and background checks in the hope of just getting on a waiting list, only to “get hit in the face once they arrive here with the fact that America isn’t a place where money grows on trees and everything is taken care of.”
“Their first realization is when they land,” said Al-Jijakli. “They realize they have to pay back the plane ticket that got them here. And that’s really indicative of the entire process of resettlement.”
The U.S. government does provide some aid, delivered through a handful of refugee assistance organizations, but their approach is typically North American, beyond just the crippling debt: Rather than place Syrian refugees in communities with others who speak their language and share their customs, they are often intentionally placed far away from those communities in the hope of encouraging “assimilation and self-sufficiency,” said Al-Jijakli.
The remnants of buildings in Amena’s hometown of Homs, Syria after the city was hit by an airstrike on May 8, 2014. | Photo: EFE
That makes refugees, isolated from the social networks that might ease their transition to a new country, highly reliant on the organizations that helped bring them to the U.S. “It’s putting people in a situation where they do not know where to go outside of their immediate contact with the resettlement agency,” said Al-Jilakli. And while most caseworkers “do a pretty decent job and care about the refugees,” it’s an impossible task: Caring cannot make up for a lack of resources—dollars and cents—and in that respect the nation that helped give birth to the modern notion of “humanitarian” war abroad is failing to demonstrate much in the way of humanitarianism at home.
But not only are people like Amena treated as suspects before they come, and given little more than a small stipend and a big bill once they arrive, but even after all the interviews and background checks they are still treated as if they are terrorists in search of a welfare check, with some of the country’s most prominent politicians wondering aloud why any Syrians are allowed to step foot on U.S. soil.
Donald Trump, the billionaire frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, says that if he wins, “they’re going back,” they being people like Amena and her family. If they stay, he’s on record as believing they might be tempted to turn the United States into the hell that is the country they fled. “They probably think, ‘This is going to be easy. We will send all these ISIS people,’” he told Fox News, suggesting the refugee’s goal was a military coup. “A big percentage could be them.”
Trump’s right-wing challengers for the U.S. presidency have said much the same thing. Texas Senator Ted Cruz has said that accepting “Syrian Muslim refugees” is “in a word, lunacy.” He made no distinction between Syrians and the mostly foreign jihadists who conquered the Syrian city of Raqqa. “It makes no sense whatsoever to bring in ISIS terrorists coming to wage jihad and murder innocent Americans,” he said to applause.
Thankfully, Amena told teleSUR, most people in the United States are not like the ones running for president, at least not when faced with the targets of their politicians’ demagoguery one-on-one.
When people find out she is from Syria, “they are very sympathetic and they wish me luck,” she said. “People are treating me nice, always, wherever I go, in the streets and in the buses and the shops. When I speak to them they are patient and try to slow down and make sure I can understand.”
She wears a traditional Muslim headscarf, which makes her stand out, she thinks, but “it is very, very rare that I suffer harassment. I have friends now too.”
As for those who have their doubts about Syrians like her, perhaps expressed only in the mind-numbing comfort of the xenophobic mob, Amena has a message: She is no terrorist. “I escaped with my children from fear and terror and destruction,” she said, and neither she nor any other refugee has an interest in bringing any of that to the place to which they fled.
“No one wants their country to be destroyed,” she said. “I did not want to see my house burn down or my child screaming from fear, still now suffering as they are scared to walk or sleep alone. We left that life so we could build a new life for ourselves and our children and maybe give back to this country that opened its arms to us. So I hope that Americans would think that we are guests.”
The U.S. government has promised to accept as many as 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016, a small but welcome gesture toward humanitarianism that, if fulfilled, will take two full years to help the 19,000 or so Syrians who are already on the United States’ refugee waiting list. And there’s the matter of what happens once they are let in: Based on the experiences of the few who have been so lucky, it’s apparent that refugees are seen more as a public relations nuisance—damned by demagogues if you do let them come, rightly damned if you don’t—than guests fleeing a terrible war who deserve more than just a visa and a bill.
Still, as Amena has learned more than once, no one should make the mistake of confusing the people in a country with those who seek to rule it.
*Amena asked that we not use her real name for fear of retribution.