Thanksgiving as a Refugee in America
Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The Al-Hallaq family just celebrated its first-ever American Halloween. In their small East Austin apartment sits a smiling pumpkin on a shelf, situated above rows and rows of children's shoes. Their kids – three girls, their saffron-red hair tied into lattices, and a son – are in the room. The youngest play with blocks. The older children sit quietly, fidgeting occasionally as their parents talk. The smell of Turkish coffee fills the room. Through a translator, Othman Al-Hallaq apologizes: He used to have some of the best coffee from Jordan, but recently ran out. His wife Hanan says she thinks today's cup tastes just as good.
A month ago, the Al-Hallaqs arrived in America as refugees, having fled from the violence of their native Syria and literally walked across middle eastern borders toward an uncertain future. Othman is honest about their journey: "We left because I didn't want anything to happen to my kids."
Before the war, the Al-Hallaqs lived in Homs, a Syrian city about 30 miles from the Lebanese border. Othman was a blacksmith and builder. Together, he and Hanan had a house and some land out in the country. That they would ever have to worry about hunger or bombings was unimaginable. "We never even thought we would leave our city, never mind our country," said Othman.
The anti-government demonstrations started in 2011. Now, said Othman, "the whole city is demolished." But the situation was already collapsing when the Al-Hallaqs left in 2011. Food was scarce; medical care almost nonexistent. Othman mentions their kids again: He wouldn't let them get sick in a land without readily available treatment.
For a while, Hanan spent time at their country plot while Othman looked after the house. When a rocket landed near their home, it was their final straw. They traveled to a relative's in Damascus, then to the city of Daraa, before walking two hours across the countryside, dodging army patrols, to cross their way into Jordan. The Al-Hallaqs stayed for four years, with no real support or infrastructure. The kids would get sick – which Othman and Hanan feared the most. Othman found a job making doors: a four-hour commute almost to the Saudi Arabian border and back. Then they learned that they were eligible to be resettled in America.
The Al-Hallaqs didn't choose the United States. They were simply told that the country was where they would end up going, just as Othman's brothers and mother were told they were going to Sweden. They expected California, or maybe New York, but in the end got assigned to Austin.
The Al-Hallaqs are not the only Syrians in this city, or even in their apartment complex. Downstairs, Mohammed Aladawi opens his door and greets me with a shake of his left hand. His right stays in his pocket – a glassy scar on the wrist the outward sign of partial paralysis. Back in Syria, in Daraa, Aladawi owned a little candy store, selling chips and sweets. But he was really a farmer with his own land. His family would grow everything, he said: "wheat, watermelon, beans, lentils." When the war came, and they were besieged for three months, the Aladawis could at least feed themselves.
But then the Aladawis were faced with a conundrum. The siege was temporarily lifted, but with conditions: Families could leave, but fighting-age men had to stay. The land was precious, but nothing was as precious to the Aladawis as their kids. When the family saw bombings again, they chose to take their children to safety. Like the Al-Hallaqs, Mohammed Aladawi, his wife, and their five children traveled to Jordan – no luggage, no trace of their old lives – first by car, then on foot for nearly nine hours toward the border.
The Aladawis made it to Zarqa, a city of 350,000 in northwest Jordan; a city born of migrants founded last century by Chechen refugees fleeing the conflict between the Ottoman and Russian empires. They found a home. Charities and nongovernmental organizations helped them accumulate clothing. They even managed to get the kids into school. Migrating a second time wasn't on their minds, until the family got a call telling them that the U.S. would consider taking them. They started the application process. Two-and-a-half years later, they left Zarqa for Austin, arriving on Sept. 1 – the same day that the Al-Hallaqs also entered the country.
A Welcome Arrival
The big shock was the temperature. While Syria borders the Arabian Peninsula, the Southwest Asian nation is temperate: Eighties in the summer, snowy in the winter. Jordan was hot – too hot sometimes. The Aladawis hoped the U.S. would be cooler, but Austin proved hotter than Jordan. Its November weather, Mohammed Aladawi said, is like high summer in Daraa. But it's easier now to be outside, like he would have been in his fields back home.
Anyway, it's not the weather that troubles the Aladawis. It's the future. What no one told them before they arrived in the U.S. was that any assistance they receive will dry up in four months. Had they known, the Aladawis may have stayed in Jordan, where life was tough but at least predictable. Now they don't know what they will do after the new year, or how they will afford to stay in their apartment. There are programs available, but many require a work component. Mohammed is looking for work – farmers don't really know how not to perform labor – but that deadline is ticking.
The Aladawis have asked whether they could go elsewhere. Like the Al-Hallaqs, they have relatives in Sweden, as well as in Austria. But leaving is now too difficult, so they have instead told friends and family back in Jordan to try to go to Britain or Canada, where the institutional help for the helpless is deeper than in America.
But there is help. Both families learned this on their first day arriving in Austin. Exhausted, with four kids in tow, the Al-Hallaqs got lost inside of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. After two hours wandering around, a staff member helped them find their luggage and connected them with volunteers there to meet and taxi them to their new home. It was a shock, but the right kind of shock: The apartment was furnished, a hot meal was on the table, and toys had been laid out for the kids. Othman said: "We'll never forget the generosity."
The volunteers were with Refugee Services of Texas, whose organizational spokesman Chris Kelley stresses the importance of the airport pickup. "There's a real correlation between the welcome a family receives and how that critical first 180 days proceed," he said.
RST is one of the local nonprofits officially designated to help resettle refugees in Texas. Refugee is a legal status, defined by the Immigration and Nationality Act and enforced by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The term refers to someone outside the U.S., either a foreign national or a stateless person, who finds themselves forced to leave their country of residence due to persecution or fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinions, or membership of a particular social group. Being a refugee means you're caught between multiple countries, international aid agencies, local agencies, resettlement organizations, and volunteers. In Austin, RST is a lead partner. While other cities have their advantages – Dallas and Houston have bigger and more established Arabic communities, while the well-paid food processing jobs in Amarillo can be a big draw for workers – Kelley said that Austin sets itself apart as "one of the most welcoming cities in all of the United States, never mind Texas. I think the acceptance of people in general has refugees feeling very comfortable."
In the last year, RST Austin has received a total of 315 refugees from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burundi, Cameroon, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Uganda, and Zambia. More than half are Syrian, but that's barely scratching the surface of the issue. The United Nations Human Rights Council currently has 4.8 million Syrians registered as refugees. According to Amnesty International, most of them are currently occupying Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. The massive influx of a desperate population has strained the economies of those nations, while the influx of refugees – both formally documented and those fleeing by any means necessary – has created political turmoil in Europe, feeding America's right-wing rhetoric.
The Obama administration has stepped up: In the past year, ending Oct. 31, the federal government accepted 13,697 Syrian refugees, exceeding the original target of 10,000. However, there remains a question about what happens moving forward. President-elect Donald Trump has talked about registering Muslims, while future Vice President Mike Pence attempted to block resettlement of refugees while he was governing Indiana. "We don't know what the Trump administration will do," said Kelley. "I don't want to even speculate, but we certainly are concerned, based on rhetoric."
A Multi-Year Process
It's no secret that it's a tough time to be foreign in America. That's amplified for anyone suffering the trauma of fleeing a failing state like Syria. To come to the U.S. and be confronted with the current anti-migrant, anti-refugee, anti-Muslim rhetoric is terrifying. "It frightens them," said Kelley. "We've seen refugees, particularly after the Paris attacks, who were afraid to leave their apartments. We had caseworkers explain to them that people are frightened: 'They're afraid of your language; they're not afraid of you.'"
The Paris attacks also saw a ray of hope. Prior to that, RST held roughly 100 volunteers. Now, Kelley said, more than 1,300 Austinites have signed up to lend a hand, helping refugees with translation, accompanying them to the grocery store, filling out applications, or ferrying them to the doctor.
It's not like refugees are turning up unannounced. As Kelley noted, the U.S. refugee system is already one of the planet's most rigorous, with only 5% of all global refugees resettled within the nation. It can also seem arbitrary, since the U.S. picks who it even considers: Neither the Al-Hallaqs nor the Aladawis know why they were relocated to America while family members were sent to other countries.
It's a multi-year process of extensive background checks, which is tough; refugees are often unlikely to have documentation with them. The Aladawis fled without their passports, and were lucky enough to bring what is known as a family book – a legal document charting the entire family structure – to suffice as a replacement. Without that, the Aladawis would still be in Jordan. Kelley called the process "more stringent than an FBI background check. It involves everything from blood samples to iris scans to extensive documentation, where you've got to prove who you are and where you're from."
It's easy to get disqualified. Othman Al-Hallaq was questioned about whether he had been involved in the early protest marches, before the war. He told the assigned bureaucrats that he had, but mostly to keep his brother, a photographer, safe as he chronicled events. (That brother, he says with pride, is now a documentary filmmaker in Sweden.)
Kelley noted that the concentration on potential links to insurgent groups has proved particularly burdensome and dangerous for refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq, and in particular for military translators. These locals often risked their lives to assist U.S. forces, but they find themselves stranded because of the shifting regional alliances. "The relationships aren't neat over there," he said. "An interpreter or translator could have known somebody who knows somebody who knows a terrorist."
Yet once they are through those hoops, that's where government involvement pretty much stops, and groups like RST step in. Their job isn't just scheduling and checks. It is, Kelley explained, about giving them the life skills to make it day-to-day in America: How to call 911. When to call 911. How to navigate a grocery store. "Car insurance is really hard to figure out for some refugees," reminded Kelley, "in terms of 'Why do I have to pay that much?'"
Not every refugee is a stranger to the U.S., or even fits the legal, technical definition of a refugee. There is another class of refugee: here legally, on either a visa or a green card, but still fleeing oppression. Over the last few months, there has been an influx of Turks into the U.S., fleeing the massive crackdown on opponents of the government of President Recep Erdogan. At its core, their plight is the same as that of Syrian refugees. There is that shared fear for what is happening in their ancestral homelands, 7,000 miles away. Their experiences have been polar opposites.
Indeed, the high-ceilinged two-story home in North Austin could not seem farther away from the small apartments that house the Al-Hallaqs and Aladawis. Rather than the donated furniture and art, there are comfortable couches. The word "Istanbul" is lovingly picked out in calligraphy and framed with pride of place.
In between sips of tea from an ornately patterned glass, and bites from a plate of bulgur wheat and potato pie, Yusuf clicks through a website, www.turkeypurge.com. (For the safety of their families, the Chronicle has agreed to use pseudonyms for Turkish refugees.) The site was founded by journalists attempting to track the oppression, and the numbers are staggering. Over 100,000 people have been fired from their jobs, including over 6,000 academics and nearly 4,000 judges and prosecutors. 78,000 people have been detained, 37,000 arrested, including 145 journalists. Thousands of schools and universities have closed.
The purge came after a failed coup in July. The target has been the Gülenists – adherents to the teachings of Turkish philosopher and social activist Muhammed Fethullah Gülen. In the Nineties, the Gülen movement (more technically known as Hizmet, meaning "service," and a reflection of the commitment to civic engagement) was allied with Erdogan's Justice and Development Party. Now Erdogan has blamed rogue Gülenists as the cause of Turkey's problems.
Berat doesn't believe it. He came to the U.S. almost three decades ago to study engineering at the University of Texas, and has established a distinguished career. He calls the failed July coup "extremely convenient" for Erdogan: Before the coup, his administration was crumbling, wracked with allegations of corruption at the highest level. All those have disappeared as he has taken absolute control, and suppressed all opposition. Berat said: "Three hours into the coup attempt, when the F-16s were in the air, he was at the airport, giving a statement to the press, saying this was a gift from God to us."
Anyone even peripherally attached to Hizmet is now persona non grata in Turkey, and anyone with the means has fled. Most, said Berat, have gone east to Georgia or north to Bosnia, but those with green cards or U.S. visas have gone to America. So far, they know of 17 Turkish families in Austin alone. Two of them are staying with Berat. "Fortunately, he had a green card," Berat said of one of his guests. "So he found a job in a gas station, but they know zero English. So we've been trying to help them."
Having that access to legal employment, and the support network of the existing Turkish population, is vital. There is no government aid for them. "These people are not officially classified as refugees," said Berat. "They are just people who have run away."
The one positive for Turkish families is that they are already here – already established, already employed and secure. If more Turks manage to escape the crackdown, or if the U.S. starts accepting Turkish refugees, they are well positioned to greet their fellow nationals when they arrive.
It's more uncertain times for the Syrian families, the Al-Hallaqs and Aladawis. Their kids are all enrolled in AISD schools, and the men are now looking for jobs. Othman is optimistic: He and Hanan were both taking English classes, but he dropped out so he could concentrate on applying for work. Mohammed Aladawi remains determined but less upbeat. He recounts one service industry job he applied for: He had to supply a medical note to prove he was fit for work. He did, and then the hiring firm told him he had to speak English.
The kids face that language difficulty, too. Not only are they trying to learn English, but most of their classmates speak Spanish, so they are struggling to be trilingual. It's easier on the little ones, both families agree, but for the teens in high school, that's a lot of adjustments to make.
It's hard to see the footage from Syria. Aleppo and its 7,000 years of history have been pounded into rubble, and neither family has a clear idea what is happening in their smaller hometowns, away from the struggling eye of the media and the tender mercies of nongovernmental organizations. "Kids are getting killed," said Othman, "and they have nothing to do with this horror. The most important thing is for this war to stop."
But there are high points. The families have made friends in the neighborhood, and in the local Syrian community. Othman said their goal is to integrate and assimilate. Most importantly, the kids are in school, and they love the nearby duck pond.
"That's why we left," said Othman. "We want them to be safe, and to have a good life."
How You Can Help
Neighbors of the Al-Hallaq and Aladawi families are taking donations to help with essentials, and for when federal assistance runs out. www.gofundme.com/syrianneighbors.
Donate money and time to Syrian American Refugee Aid. The group helps with tutoring and mentoring, as well as career counseling. SARA also helps Syrian women become economically active through sewing and catering programs. www.saraorg.org.
While many international NGOs find it increasingly hard to operate in Syria, there are still Syrian volunteers on the ground. The Syrian Civil Defense – known as the white helmets – have rescued tens of thousands of citizens who are either trapped or refuse to leave their homeland. www.whitehelmets.org.
Refugee Services of Texas is always looking for volunteers and donations (both cash or in-kind). www.rstx.org/austin.html.
The UN Human Rights Council is the leading global entity dealing with refugee aid and resettlement, concentrating on the humanitarian crises in Iraq and Syria, and migrants in Europe. www.unrefugees.org.