Syrian Refugees–“We Left Everything Behind”

Man in wheelchair with a tiny boy and bag on his lap. Background of shelters covered in tarps.

One hundred fifty-three years ago, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman issued his definitive statement on war: “War is Hell.”

In 2013, Syrian Christians and Damascus residents 14-year-old Mariamma (Mary) and her 16-old brother Outha (Joseph) were caught in the middle of a battle between rebels and government forces. They decided to split up. While running to a building, Outha took a bullet from a rifle that nearly tore his right arm off. He was taken to Tishreen Military Hospital in Damascus where a team of doctors worked valiantly to save his life. They did. Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Tommy Taylor was one of the doctors who operated on him. Outha spent six weeks in the hospital recuperating. He was given training on how to use the arm. Before leaving the hospital, Dr. Taylor fitted Outha with a newer and better prosthetic arm.

The prosthetic arm made him nervous. It drew attention to him that he did not want, and the hook had a menacing look and feel.

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The family’s woes did not end with Outha’s tragedy.

During that same battle, Mariamma was running along a street in Damascus when an IED (improvised explosive device) exploded. She was taken to a hospital, and due to her injuries she lost the use of her left leg and has scars on the left side of her body and her face. In addition she has recurring nightmares of the incident.

Mariamma’s mother, Amira, found Mariamma three days after she sustained her injuries. Four days later, Amira took her daughter home. Although Amira did not know where Outha was, she had enough faith to believe he was not dead. Six weeks later when he returned home, Amira was overwhelmed with emotion. She says, “I nearly fainted when I saw he only had one arm.”

Being disabled made Mariamma and Outha look more humanely at the thousands of people in their community physically scarred by the war. They saw people armless, visionless, hard-of-hearing or deaf, speechless, multi-scarred, cognitively challenged, nearly skeletons and others with multiple juries. All of these people were homeless, hungry and destitute.

The brother and sister knew they would have to be strong and resilient to survive. They were witnessing firsthand the utter, human destructive carnage of war. The war infuriated them. Their bitterness towards their government could not be measured.

Shortly after Mariamma and Outha’s near death experiences, government forces arrested their father, Hassan.

Hassan was a critic of Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad. The government seized their property and forced them from their home. Leaving their home was a crushing blow. Six generations of their family had lived there. Their father and grandfather were lawyers. Since the war started in 2011, 15 members of their family had died from indiscriminate bombing. The dead included grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and nephews. Taking with them only what they could carry, the family fled to Turkey. The more than 600-mile walk to Turkey was long and hard on Mariamma’s left leg and equally hard on Amira. They became refugees. How does the world define a refugee?

Every month, 30,000 people are injured in Syria in conflict related violence. The International NGO Safety Organization (INSO) reports that between September 26, 2016 and December 28, 2016, there were 8656 attacks using explosive weapons in Syria, which accounted for 72% of the reported attacks and an average of 94 bombings daily.

Who Are Refugees?

Following World War II and in response to the large numbers of people fleeing Eastern Europe, the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention adopted, in Article 1(A)(2), the following definition of “refugee” to apply to any person who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

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The Syrian Crisis

The numbers tell the bleak story of the toll the Syrian crisis has had on its citizens. Twelve million Syrians affected: 6.3+ million internally displaced people in Syria, 4.9 million Syrian refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 3.1 million internally displaced people in Iraq and 2.9+ million Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Upon arriving at the camp, Mariamma, Outha and Amira were surprised to see international organizations providing a range of services to the refugees. They saw doctors, physical therapists, social workers and psychologists.

Syrian Refugees in rehab, Two young boys siting on a table with medical staff. Right Older man with white cane sits next to small, smiling boy in wheel chair with medical staff.

A report issued in February 2017 by an international NGO working to help Syrians impacted by the crisis in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq contains the following description of humanitarian services to refugees:

The NGO provides support to hospitals, clinics, and specialized care centers in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon, providing post-operative physical and functional rehabilitation. Our staff fits individuals with orthopedic devices (artificial limbs and braces), distributes mobility aids (wheelchairs, walkers, etc.) and special equipment (toilet chairs, anti-sore mattresses, etc.). We work to ensure people recover as much of their mobility as possible and can take part in day-to-day life. Psychosocial support is also provided for the families of people with disabilities. This work is intended to help families offer long-term support to loved ones who are in disabling situations. Community support groups offer families the opportunity to share their experiences and to identify practical solutions to help them cope. These services are essential for, patients who have lost all or some of their mobility and need to perform exercises to avoid developing permanent disabilities, and patients who have permanently lost some of their mobility and need rehabilitation care to avoid medical complications, enhance their comfort and, in many cases, move around autonomously again.

“We walk the camps, informing vulnerable people about available services, and offering access to very specific types of care. Staff then follows up with these people. Handicap International also helps other organizations ensure that the most vulnerable are included in the actions they implement.”

Once the family was settled in the camp, Mariamma was given a walker and counseling. Outha was given a new prosthetic arm and counseling. Having lost her home and husband, nearly losing both children and the long trip to the camp, Amira was lost. She needed psychosocial support.

The camp was depressing. Many of the people there had lost everything. Their situations mirror Amin’s story.

Amin, 60 years old, Amman (Jordan), January 2017

“We left everything behind”

Amin is from Homs, Syria. In 2014, he fled Syria to take refuge in Jordan. Due to a lack of adequate care, his diabetes has taken a serious turn for the worse in the last few years, and in June 2016, he had his left leg amputated. He was fitted with prosthesis and received physiotherapy and occupational therapy.

“In Syria, I was a butcher. I loved my job and happily spent most of my day working,” recounts Amin when he recalls his life before the war. “We lived a normal life, everything was fine. I had a car and we lived in a big house.” Whilst his grandchildren play at his feet in the living room of the small apartment he now lives in, he continues to talk about how everything changed.

“We left Syria just over two years ago. Life had become a real struggle in Homs. We first took refuge in a school in the suburbs of Damascus with other families. We stayed there for six months, but the school was bombed and we had to move again. A year later, the bombing reached the town we were living in, where we thought we would be safe. That’s when we decided to flee to Jordan, leaving everything behind.”

Amin’s diabetes got worse when he arrived in Amman. “I had a wound which would not heal. I consulted several doctors, but I didn’t have the means to pay for treatment. My condition worsened and, one day they told me I had to have an amputation.” After the surgery, one of his close friends advised him to contact Handicap International. The organisation fitted him with prosthesis and provided him with physiotherapy and occupational therapy sessions. “I can get around again and that has really changed my life here,” concludes Amin with a smile.

How are Syrian Refugees relocated to the U.S.?

The process begins with a referral from the UNHCR registers refugee’s worldwide and provides aid and assistance until they are resettled abroad or (more likely) returned home once conditions ease. The registration process includes in-depth refugee interviews, home country reference checks and biological screenings, such as iris scans. Military combatants are expunged.

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Every refugee goes through an intensive vetting process, but the precautions are increased for Syrians. Multiple law enforcement, intelligence and security agencies perform “the most rigorous screening of any traveler to the U.S.,” says a senior administration official. Among the agencies involved are the State Department, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security. A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officer conducts in-person interviews with every applicant. Biometric information, such as fingerprints, are collected and matched against criminal databases. Biographical information, like past visa applications, are scrutinized to ensure the applicant’s story is genuine.

Amira says, “One interview led to another and then to another and another and another.”

Refugees will not be admitted into the U.S. if they are a security risk, have connections to known bad characters or have outstanding warrants or criminal violations.

Lawyer Jason Ward specializes in assisting immigrants entering this country. He scoffs at the Trump administration’s efforts to slow down people from Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Jordan.

“Refugees coming into America from Syria, Jordon and Iraq have been well vetted. They pose no more threats to the U.S. than Vice President Pence,” Ward says.

Mariamma and Outha adjusted to the camp fairly easily. A school was set up, and they went. Soccer was played daily. Outha and Mariamma were fascinated by the programs set up to help people with disabilities. They offered their assistance by visiting people who needed help.

Outha developed a passion for backgammon and won many games. Meanwhile, Amira and her two children anxiously waited to hear about their refugee status.

Two years elapsed from the time the UNHCR started the referral process until Amira and her children learned they were going to the United States. It was a happy but sad occasion. Amira and the children knew they would never return to their beloved Syria.

“Syria was our home. Syria is in our blood. Arabic is our native language, not English. Our foods, culture, clothes and religion are different,” Outha has stated.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, although Syrian refugees represent a new flow to the United States, the broader Syrian immigrant community, while quite small in size, has had a U.S. presence since the late 19th century. As of 2015, approximately 83,000 people born in Syria resided in the United States, accounting for less than 0.2 percent of the overall foreign-born population of 43.3 million. It is also well integrated, with Syrian immigrants having higher levels of education and English proficiency than the overall foreign-born population.

Amira, Mariamma and Outha arrived in New York in November 2015, and they were met by relatives. It was a tearful reunion. Mariamma and Outha had never met their American cousins. Since their arrival, Amira found a job working for a travel agency with offices in the Middle East. She misses Syria, and she misses her dead husband.

Amira had visited New York 25 years ago before her marriage. She spent the summer working for her relatives who owned a restaurant and a bookstore. She was happy to be in a place where there was no war. She had personally experienced too much war. She was with her family, and that was enough for her to be content.

Mariamma was awed by her first Christmas in New York City. She had never seen so many decorations and so many Santa Clauses. Her first Christmas in the U.S. was, “the best Christmas in my life” she said. She will finish high school next year, and she has a Syrian boyfriend. When her left leg bothers her, she uses a wheelchair. She feels more comfortable using a wheelchair here than she did in Syria. She marvels at the laws and technology available in America to advance opportunities for disabled people. She joined an advocacy group working on behalf of people with disabilities, and she believes Syria will never have laws benefiting disabled people. She intends to go to college and major in Middle Eastern history and teach here. She works at a movie theatre on weekends. She believes she has more career options here than she had in the Middle East, Despite it all, she is still troubled by nightmares involving the incident in which she was the victim of an IED.

Outha is a college freshman. When he started college, a disabled student introduced Outha to a variety of assistive technology products. Outha was attracted to voice recognition immediately. “It’s a powerful tool. I can do anything I want with it,” he says. He uses it for his writing and other tasks. He is dating an American girl, and he works 30 hours a week stacking books, ordering books and ringing out customers at the international bookstore owned by his relatives. He is becoming accustomed to people staring at his prosthetic arm. He has a new prosthetic with a hand, which looks more natural than the hook. He is aware of the many laws passed in the United States prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities, and he is amazed at the yearly salaries people here earn.

Outha and Mariamma still think of Syria. They doubt they will ever return. They have seen hell. They have lived through hell. They do not want to be reminded
of hell.

Outha and Mariamma share a common goal. After they have been in American for five years, they intend to become American citizens.

by John M. Williams

Writer’s note: Fearing retribution by the government towards their friends in Syria, Amira, Mariamma and Outha agreed to be interviewed on the condition I did not use their last names, I could not take photographs of them or give physical descriptions of them.

Read more articles from the Nic Novicki Issue.

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