By Hassan Khalifeh and Tareq Abdel Wahed | Arab American News
GRAND RAPIDS — Reunited at last. As the sun fades beneath a rosy sky and among calm roads, friends and family with a fragmented but inescapable past unearthed tales of their journeys far from home.
Home is a new place now — a refuge in a land once thought foreign.
Innocent curiosity sets on the face of Adam, a 4-month-old boy with an ironic name; he is the first child of Syrian refugees born in Grand Rapids.
The boy sits comfortably on Maria Kabbani’s lap. She’s an Italian American humanitarian from Dearborn dedicating her life to helping Syrian refugees make it safely to American soil. Adam’s parents, Saleh and Hiba, along with other refugees interviewed, wished not to disclose their last names. They told stories of leaving their now-demolished homes in Homs, to embark on daring journeys to Jordan and eventually finding solace in Grand Rapids.
“Maybe he’ll become the next Obama,” Oudai, 20, a Syrian refugee neighbor said of the infant boy.
The thought of the son of Syrian refugees becoming president in our lifetimes might be humorous, but to Adam’s father, among all the bountiful opportunities presented to his family here, the boy’s American citizenship is seen as the stroke of luck the child needed to secure a bright future.
Saleh used to work at a potato chip factory in Syria, but the civil war has rendered much of the country uninhabitable, forcing millions of Syrians out of their homes in massive waves to Europe or other parts of the Middle East.
Michigan has welcomed hundreds of refugees into its cities. Many Syrian families starting a new life in Grand Rapids had endured an excruciating tenure in Jordan, often up to four years, before coming to the States.
Now, there is no going back.
Arrival in Grand Rapids
“Their futures are here in America; there’s no future for them in our country,” Saleh said of his children.
Days after Saleh made himself comfortable in his new Grand Rapids apartment, he met Houssam Attal or “el doktor”, a laboratory scientist and Syrian immigrant who many refugees have come to trust. Attal has helped settle newcomers in Grand Rapids.
He also mediated the meeting between The Arab American News and the Syrian families. He said he feels compelled to assist them as a way of doing what he can about his country’s devastating state.
Attal said the first question Saleh asked him was about employment. Saleh was exhausted from a nomadic life and ready to integrate into American society.
“We didn’t come here to ask for help from anybody,” Saleh said. “We came here so we can work by ourselves. Here, we can work, get an education and live in a house — without anybody pointing out you’re a refugee. You’re like anybody else here.”
Saleh recalled looking out of the airplane’s window as it neared the Gerald R. Ford Airport in Grand Rapids and seeing his future unravel beneath him as he looked down at the lights coming from tiny picturesque houses that neatly lined the streets. He’d felt excited to soon end his journey as a refugee in Michigan. A new home was looming.
It was nighttime when Saleh’s family arrived at the airport. They were greeted by a caseworker from Bethany Christian Services, a leading organization that provides services for children and families in need.
The case worker drove them to their new home, a two-bedroom apartment with basic furniture, including a couple of mattresses and a fan. She told them the food in the fridge would last them a week, which Bethany would continue to replenish until they were given food stamps.
The family woke up to a crisp fall air, Saleh said. For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, they took a serene stroll in their neighborhood.
Humiliated in Jordan
This family has enjoyed the safety and comfort of their suburban Michigan town for about eight months, following their time in Jordan.
“No country opened its doors for us to work and live,” Saleh said as he leaned back triumphantly in his wingback chair. “Either we lived in war or were humiliated in Jordan.”
For the families and neighbors in the room, their interim stay as refugees in Jordan was strenuous.
Oudai has been living in a nearby apartment, similar to Saleh’s, for almost three months. He said when he and his mother traveled to Jordan, he was eager to find work in a country he hoped would accept them as fellow Arabs. They would soon find their struggles were far from over.
Oudai’s mother or “Um Oudai” said as they attempted to flee Syria for the first time in 2012, border patrol officers asked the mother and son to return to their homes and come back after a week. She pleaded to be let out of the country, as her health was severely deteriorating. She had coronary heart disease and was in desperate need of surgery.
“My home is gone, my husband is a martyr,” Um Oudai asserted to an officer.
She was finally allowed to travel to Jordan. At the border, the mother and son officially registered as refugees with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Their fingerprints were taken and their retinas were scanned.
Leaving behind her seven other children, Um Oudai thought they had escaped the devastation in Syria, but their battle for safety and independence was not won in Jordan.
As a refugee, Oudai said he was not allowed to work in the country and experienced unabashed racism. He also said resources were scarce.
As they arrived, officials took pictures of every object in their modest home. They tallied every spoon and mattress.
“If you had a fan, that’s considered a luxury,” he said. “If you had a big fridge, that’s also a luxury.”
Oudai could barely support the cost of living in Jordan, while his mother’s health continued to worsen as medicine and treatment were too costly.
Ammar, Oudai’s neighborhood friend in Homs, said his family has lived in Grand Rapids for almost four months. He, his brother and mother, “Um Ammar”, also sought refuge in Jordan for four years.
There, their spirits were crushed by blatant bigotry toward Syrians, he said.
Ammar said he also signed a pledge restricting him from working. He still worked under the table. Um Ammar said her sons worked long hours; she would often see them for one hour a day.
Natives would sometimes tell Ammar Syrians were taking their jobs and wealth.
“We left war; none of us were there to cause trouble,” Ammar said. “We went to study and work, so we can have a better future, to improve ourselves.”
After an agonizing four years, Um Oudai, much like her long-time neighbors, received a call from the UNHCR. The agency learned about her health condition and offered aid in finding treatment.
It took about a year and 10 months for Um Oudai and her son to reach the U.S.
On the airplane, she said she could barely believe she was getting out. The stress was affecting her health, but she was greeted with great hospitality at the airport. She said for the first time in a while, she felt valued.
The next day, at her apartment, Um Oudai peered through the window and said she noticed a loud serenity outside.
“These four years that I lived in Jordan, there was so much misery and depression,” she said. “Most nights I would go to sleep in tears.”
All the Syrian refugees interviewed said they found Michigan to be welcoming and that they see their futures full of potential.
“It’s impossible to go back to our country,” Um Ammar said. “There are no more homes. My mom is in the UAE; my dad is in Saudi Arabia; I have a brothers in the UAE and Egypt and I’m in America. Our homes, our gardens and our possessions are gone. It’s impossible.”
Saleh concurred and said his family is already integrating into the new community.
“This is our country now,” he said.
Saleh added that he is working hard, taking night shifts to do cleaning at a nearby hospital, so his children can get an education and establish more promising lives than his.
Oudai and Ammar are taking English as a Second Language courses at Grand Rapids Community College. They anticipate fully enrolling at the university soon.
Um Oudai had just scheduled her surgery at the time of the interview.
For years, the refugee families have witnessed suffering; their houses were destroyed; they endured racism from their Arab neighbors. In victory, they now bask in the safety of their homes and stable jobs.
However, Attal— “el doktor”— who helps a refugee every day and was once a Syrian immigrant with little in his pocket, knows of the struggles to come.
During a Ramadan feast at a local Mediterranean restaurant, where the families, friends and activists dined, Attal said the majority of Syrians he knows— regardless of their political leanings— feel abandoned by their government, surrounding countries and the rest of the world.
In return, Attal said many Syrians hold a resentment of things associated with being Arab or Muslim. So when they are respected in countries like the U.S., they feel a belonging to anything American.
However, he said he noticed many of the families who come here are not highly educated. Because they have been far from home for quite some time, they have lost their skills and find themselves starting at, “The very bottom.”
“They still have a lot to learn,” Attal said. “They don’t have the command of the language; they still don’t have the skills that they need.”
As an example, he said to imagine a newcomer to a country seeing a letter in the mail that states that person has won $1,000. He said many do not initially understand that the letter is junk mail.
“Every little thing is so interesting, everything little thing is real and everything little is scary or hopeful,” he said.
Attal added that many Syrian refugees he assists have not escaped racism in the U.S., although they may not yet notice it.
“American racism exists, but it’s not blatant — it’s subtle,” he said. “You and I understand it, but they don’t.”
To the refugees, racism would be overt, like if someone looked and yelled at them. However, he said they are not yet culturally aware of racism derived from minor gestures or micro aggressions.
When he introduces a refugee, he said some people freeze, don’t know what to say and are “bewildered.”
But el doktor is hopeful about the acceptance and futures of the Syrian settlers.
“People, in general, are decent,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting the right information and right perspective and context.”