A Second Chance for Syrian Refugees in Durham

Story by Sandra Davidson     Photography by Baxter Miller


 

Lama, Lamis and Aya first touched North Carolina soil on February 20th, 2016. A short flight from JFK delivered the women to RDU, where an ambulance sat waiting. The sisters, Lamis (25) and Lama (36), helped Lama’s daughter, Aya (11), into the ambulance that rushed her to Duke Hospital where she would begin treatment for Fanconi Anemia, a rare life-threatening genetic disease.

It could be said that the family had been travelling for 72 hours, since they boarded a New York bound plane in Istanbul, Turkey, for permanent resettlement in the United States. But it could also be said that the family had been traveling since 2013 when Lama and Aya fled their war-torn home in Syria. Their arrival in North Carolina marks the beginning of what they hope will be a second chance at life. 

 
 Lama, Lamis and Aya eat lunch at their new home in Durham among friends (who declined to be photographed).

Lama, Lamis and Aya eat lunch at their new home in Durham among friends (who declined to be photographed).

 

In March 2011, pro-democracy protests, much like ones seen in Tunisia and Egypt during the Arab Spring, triggered what has become a relentlessly brutal civil war in Syria. The authoritarian regime of President Assad responded to political dissent and protests with force and barbarity. In the months following, the conflict escalated as factions of pro-democracy groups fought back. Over the last last five years, Islamists and jihadists, including the likes of ISIS, have capitalized on the chaos claiming areas across the county as part of the “caliphate.” According to the BBC, “A UN commission of inquiry has evidence that all parties to the conflict have committed war crimes - including murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearances. They have also been accused of using civilian suffering - such as blocking access to food, water and health services through sieges - as a method of war.” Repeated chemical warfare attacks, linked to the Assad regime by western countries, have harmed and killed hundreds of civilians. 

The Syrian Civil War has caused the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War. More than 4.5 million Syrians have fled the country. 6.5 million have been forced from their homes and remain internally displaced in Syria. Over 250,000 thousand men, women, and children have died. 

The conflict reached Homs, Lama, Lamis and Aya’s home province, quickly. Aya’s health declined as instability grew, and by 2013, Lama, a music teacher, decided to leave with her daughter. The flux of refugees fleeing Syria had not yet peaked, and it took them a day to cross the border legally into Turkey. By the time Lamis, who was finishing a degree in architecture, joined her sister and niece in 2014, the number of Syrians leaving the country had grown exponentially. She waited for three days at the border to cross. 

The choice to move was not an easy one. The family, and others I spoke with for this story, said most Syrians move within the country, sometimes dozens of times, before leaving because they don’t want to desert home. 

“You won’t find any Syrian family that wasn’t internally displaced,” explains Lamis, who is the family’s only English speaker. “You move from one city to another. You adjust to a new neighborhood and a new house, and then you have to move again.” The last home she lived in was shelled 19 times while her family was inside. “We hid in the kitchen until the shelling was over.” The shells left holes the size of dinner plates in the house’s walls and floors.

 
 Lama and her daughter, Aya

Lama and her daughter, Aya

 

Lama, Lamis and Aya lived and worked in Turkey until they were resettled in North Carolina.  “The first flight that was scheduled for us —  it was on February 9th —  but because of Aya’s medical condition, her blood platelets were very low, so they admitted her for about 10 days at a hospital in Istanbul until her blood platelets were at a rate that allowed her to fly,” says Lamis.

They, like all resettled refugees, had no say on where they were placed, but believe they ended up in Durham because of its proximity to Duke Hospital, where the odds of finding a bone marrow match for Aya, a long-term treatment for her illness, are higher. 

The U.S. plans to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees. After the Paris attacks in November 2015, state governors and elected officials across the country, including Governor Pat McCrory, asked the federal government to pause Syrian resettlement. Despite the requests, states do not have the authority to alter federal resettlement placements. To date, 108 Syrian refugee families have resettled in North Carolina.

The United States has one of the most strict resettlement processes in the world. Overseen by the the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Health and Human Services, the vetting process includes background checks, security screenings, health checks, and in-depth in-person interviews with the applicant. Once a refugee passes all mandated screenings, which takes a minimum of 18 months, one of nine nonprofit agencies works with the State Department to coordinate placement. Six of the nine organizations are faith based — five are Christian and one is Jewish. 

Refugees receive a plane ticket, a Social Security Number (which allows them to qualify for food stamps and Medicaid), access to public schools, direct services (English language classes, employment training and medical assistance) provided by resettlement agencies, and, for the first three months, a modest federal stipend that covers temporary housing and basic living expenses.

After the three months of temporary federal assistance, North Carolina provides up to eight months of direct services, like employment services and transportation, as well as monetary assistance — from $180 to $521 per month depending on household size. When a resettled family becomes self-sufficient, they are expected to pay back the cost of their plane tickets. 


Adam Clark, director of World Relief Durham, the resettlement agency working with Aya’s family said, “When our 90 days are up, we want them to have an ongoing support system of friends.” Often local churches step in to become that support system. They carry families to medical appointments, English language classes, culture orientation classes and more.

Aya typically visits Duke Hospital twice a week for blood transfusions and check-ups. Because her immune system is not strong enough for public transportation, volunteers, like Monica Gainey from The Church of the Good Shepherd in Durham, help transport Aya to the hospital.

“It’s more of a why wouldn’t I do that, than why would I do that,” says Monica. Monica also brings her daughter, who is close to Aya’s age, to visit. Aya loves to dance, and the two girls practice ballet together. 

“It’s a very easy way to show love to people who are in a very difficult situation,” say Monica. ”I can only imagine how difficult it would be to leave your whole life behind.”

 
 

Early in the Syrian conflict, shrapnel pierced a window and refrigerator in Amar’s house. He, his wife and infant daughter were inside. They moved in with his grandparents for a few weeks, during which their home was looted. It was later destroyed by bombing. “It was very scary for me and my wife and daughter,” says Amar. “I witnessed a lot of violence. I used to pick children’s bodies off the ground.” 

I met with Amar and his family shortly after visiting Lama, Lamis and Aya. He lives just up the street from the women, and traveled to North Carolina with his wife and two young daughters (a 3-year-old and 8-month-old) from Turkey in February. Amar is Kurdish, a Middle Eastern ethnic group that has led much of the fight against ISIS. 

A tailor and clothing maker by trade, Amar misses the smell of Syria, its parks and the rhythm of life. Before the conflict he says, “I used to go to my job normally. I was happy. Everything was fine.” Amar, who was born with a health condition that deformed his feet and legs, says, “Sometimes I wouldn’t be able to go to work because of my legs, and that would affect my emotions, but other than that things were fine.” 

The family fled Aleppo, the country’s war-torn economic capital, in July 2013. They paid a smuggler to help them cross the border. “It was very scary... especially at the border,” says Amar.

A Turkish soldier arrested the family as soon as they crossed the border. On the way to the police station, the soldier noticed Amar’s daughter’s leg had been injured on the border fences’ razor wire. He decided to help. He drove them to a bus station that took them to a larger city in Turkey, where the family applied for refugee status. They lived in Turkey for two-and-a-half years.

Their resettlement in the US has been challenging. “Whoever speaks the language can make it, but it’s been really tough for me,” says Amar. No one in his family speaks English, and he has trouble walking because his feet and leg deformities are painful. Many jobs available for recent refugees are physically demanding, but Amar is hopeful to receive medical treatment so he can pursue steady work. “I can iron clothes, I can tailor. I can work machines. I can do a lot of stuff. I can work a lot of positions, not just as a tailor,” says Amar. 

“Aleppo people are very good at doing business. They’re very active. Very creative. They’re hardworking,” says Manal, a Syrian-American who has been volunteering to help several recently settled Syrian refugee families. She, alongside Fairouz Albouch, another Syrian-American woman, helped translate for this story. They check in with resettled families on a daily basis and are working to connect them to jobs and resources in the Triangle.

Both Fairouz and Manal understand what these families have been through because they still have family living in Syria. “My family, for the past five years, every other month, they move. They switch from one area to another [to stay safe],” says Fairouz.

“I can’t remember how many times my relatives were displaced. So many times,” says Manal.

 
 

The day after Aya and her family arrived in North Carolina, a car bombing in Homs, the region where they’re from, killed 57 people, while an attack in Damascus killed 83 people. ISIS took responsibility for the bombings. All over the globe, world leaders grapple with how to deal with Syrian refugees and whether to intervene in a conflict that is difficult for even those from Syria to understand.

“It’s very complicated. It’s not only one or two sides that have been fighting for over five years. It’s more than that,” says Lamis, who was only a few years into her college education when the conflict began. She didn’t expect it would last for very long. 

”I imagined that I would graduate in Syria and [that] the peace would come back and it would be good,” says Lamis. She dreamt of starting an architectural firm with classmates from her program. They even conceptualized how they would redesign buildings in Homs that were destroyed in the early days of the conflict. “We had a lot of dreams, a lot of hopes, but when we graduated and the situation was still the same — not even the same, was 100% worse.” 

Lamis is now applying to work for architectural firms in the Triangle. “I want to be able to provide, to be self-sufficient, to know my way around here, to help my sister.” 

Her sister is worried she won’t find work in Durham. “I’m too old to go back to school,” says Lama. “I miss my job. My friends at work. The active life I used to have.” Lama is focusing on Aya’s health, and plans to learn English once she is stable. 

“I miss my grandma. I miss her food and my friends at school,” says Aya, who is slowly adjusting to life here. She hopes to get a bicycle soon and to enroll in public school where she can be, as she sees it, just like all the other kids, but she must wait until her immune system is stronger.

The family’s days are currently filled with trips to the hospital, the DMV, culture classes and employment training. They are grateful for the help of the resettlement agency, church volunteers, and Syrian Americans who are helping them adjust.

“The American people are as I’ve seen here, very generous and kind people. And no matter how many voices that will say that refugees are not welcome here, I’ve seen the opposite,” says Lamis. “Thank you so much, for the American people, the American government, for the second chances… the second opportunities that you are giving us. On behalf of myself, my sister, my niece, the other Syrian refugees who’ve been placed in the United States — thank you very much.” 

 
 

*Last names have been omitted to protect the families included in this story. Only one family agreed to be photographed.