“When we finally crossed the border and got into the bus, I wanted the driver to move as fast as possible and to never stop. I didn’t turn back to look at my country, not even for one last time,” says Sham Al Ahmad as she describes the moment she crossed from Syria to Jordan.
In November 2012, Sham, 16, fled the Syrian town of Daara with her parents and four siblings. After four years of displacement, the Al Ahmad family finally arrived in the United States on November 29, 2016, under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.
Elizabeth, New Jersey, is their new home.
“When we were told that we were going to the United States, I started to look at the U.S. map and I memorized all 50 states. Now I can even draw the map of the U.S.,” says Mohammed, Sham’s father. He adds with a smile “I even learned where the ‘Red and Blue states’ are located. New Jersey is a Democratic-leaning state. This is where will be living,” he says during an interview held in Amman early November.
The Al Ahmad family is one of the several thousand Syrian families who are being resettled in the U.S. during the Fiscal Year 2017 as part of the ceiling of 110,000 refugees announced by the Obama administration last September. As of December 31, 2016, 25,671 – of whom 3,566 were Syrians – had been admitted in the United States for FY17, according to the Refugee Processing Center.
Mohammed and his family, who lived in Amman for four years after leaving Syria, were notified of their admission a month before their departure date. The family said it was enough time to prepare and to inform their children’s schools. “We had no money to buy anything so it was more of a mental preparation to get ready for a new and different life,” says Mohammed.
In order to get familiarized with their new life in the U.S., soon-to-be admitted refugees attend a four-day cultural orientation class, usually a few weeks before their departure.
In Amman, the classes run by the Resettlement Support Center (RSC) usually have up to 25 attendees who are informed on basics that would help them integrate into their new surroundings, such as how to find a place to live, look for work, meet Americans and adjust to American culture, society and laws.
“The class is an opportunity to clear all concerns and misinformation they [refugees] may have heard. We want to ensure they have the most accurate picture of the United States before they leave,” says Pushkar Sapkota, Project Officer for the Cultural Orientation Unit at RSC Middle East and North Africa.
In Amman, for instance, where the majority of refugees granted admission are Syrians and Iraqis, they wonder whether or not they will be able to practice their religion once in the U.S. Veiled Muslim women often worry if they will be forced to remove their scarf in order to live and find a work in the country.
Another concern often raised by the refugees is their likelihood to provide for themselves and families once they arrive. While the first months in the U.S. are expected to be challenging, primarily because of the language barrier, RSC’s cultural orientation trainers emphasize on the urgency to start looking for a job as soon as the refugees settle in, so that they become financially independent as quickly as possible. “For many of the resettled families, the father used to be the sole provider for the household back home. Through the classes, we emphasize on gender equality at the workplace and try to empower women so they can also consider becoming professionally active in the U.S.,” says Sapkota,
Mohammad’s wife, Khatim, 38, who never worked back home in Syria is now determined to find a job to also support her family. “I cook very well,” Khatim says with a smile. “I hope I can find a job in a restaurant,” she adds.
Starting a new life in the U.S. is like being born again for Khatim. “It is a miracle if I am still alive today,” she says.
Khatim was six months pregnant when she and her five children took shelter in a bunker to protect themselves from the constant shelling of their town. “On my first night in the bunker, I miscarried,” she says with tear welling in her eyes. “Soon after entering the bunker, I started to feel contractions.”
Luckily, one of the few nurses left in the city lived near the bunker. Khatim and her sister-in-law rushed over the nurse’s house. “It was too late and there was nothing the nurse could do. She gave me a shot to induce labor and it was over,” Khatim says.
Within one hour, Khatim and her sister-in-law had to return to the bunker because it had become too dangerous to remain in the apartments.
“Till this day, I still remember seeing my mother leaving with my aunt. My sisters and I were crying. We thought we would never see her again,” recalls the oldest daughter, Sham.
Khatim and her five children remained hidden in the bunker for two more days before returning home. It was then that the Al Ahmad family decided that it had become too dangerous for them to stay in Syria. It was time to leave.
Mohammed searched for a man who he knew had been driving Syrians to the Jordanian border. He paid him 2,500 Syrian Lira (50 USD) to take the whole family across the border.
“We prayed Maghrib (sunset prayer) and then left with the driver in a mini van. It was about 7:00 pm. The roads were narrow and bumpy. The driver turned off all the car’s lights to not be seen and targeted,” recalls Sham, one of the daughters.
After a two-hour long ride, the driver dropped off the family about 2 kilometers from the border. It was the closest the car could go. “Along with several other families we walked to the border, for about one kilometer before reaching a crossing point. While walking towards the border, we were told to be quiet; even the children were asked not to cry or make any sound to avoid being targeted by snipers,” recalls Mohammed, the father.
On the other side, members of the Jordanian Army waited for them. “They were nice. They handed us bottles of water and put all of us on a bus,” Sham recalls. “We didn’t know where we were heading but we felt safe. It was such a relief to have crossed the border.”
Al Ahmad family was escorted to Zaatari refugee camp where they spent only 23 days before deciding to go and live on their own.
Although the family still has relatives inside Syria, Mohammed refuses to consider the possibility of returning home one day. “As long as my children are alive, I will not,” he says adamantly.
Although like the rest of his family, he is thrilled to start a new life in the U.S., he still can’t hide his concerns over the future.
“I am worried that it might be difficult to find a job and to provide for my family. I am the head of the household and I don’t know what to expect,” says Mohammed. “I want to believe that we will be okay,” he adds.
After several years of witnessing war and experiencing displacement, the family arrived in the US eager to taste freedom. In fact prior to departure, Mohammed said the first thing they wanted to see when they arrived in the U.S. was the Statue of Liberty. “It is the symbol of freedom we have lost.”
Hajer Naili is the Communications and Social Media Coordinator at IOM Washington, D.C.