Syrian refugees start new life in Cleveland
CLEVELAND — The rich aroma of chicken and potatoes wafted in the Arabic conversation of two Syrian families, swirling around the dining room like a sensory souvenir of better times and familiar places, without sorrow and war.
There were stewed grape leaves and pita to dip in the home-made hummus and broth, and recollections to share of a homeland, 5,000 miles distant, that these families left to resettle in Cleveland this year.
Some of those memories are not recalled with fondness.
Like the random abduction of Ammar Hawana by government officials. Hawana was taken to a prison and beaten, then released six days later to return to his home that had been destroyed by bombs in an attack that severely injured his wife, Mirvat.
Or the images of attacking jet aircraft, bombings and explosions that still haunt his children, and those of Muhannad and Nisreen Almasri, who joined the Hawana family for a recent dinner in their West Side apartment.
Time and distance may have softened, but not erased those bygone experiences for these families and more than 85 other Syrian refugees who are trying to build a new life in Northeast Ohio.
They are among the 10,000 Syrian refugees who resettled in the U.S. this year; a small drop in the well of the more than 4.5 million Syrians who have been displaced by a civil war that has ravaged that nation since 2011.
Only about 1.6 percent of the more than 2,500 refugees who resettled in Ohio from 2008-2015 are Syrians. Most refugees come from Bhutan, Somalia and Iraq. Cleveland gets about 500-700 refugees annually, and Ohio received 517 Syrian refugees between 2011-2016.
Refugees differ from immigrants in that they are forced to flee from their homeland, and have a well-founded fear of persecution if they remain.
Local Syrian refugees say they have generally been greeted with an overwhelmingly positive response by Northeast Ohioans.
Hawana recently expressed his fervent thanks for the welcome, and said, through an interpreter, “Even if they walk in the street, they are not afraid. Everyone is smiling and nice. The greatness of America is in the heart of its people . . . that’s what makes America great. You are wonderful people.”
Whether Syrian refugees here will be joined by more in the future may depend on who is elected president.
Hillary Clinton wants to expand the number of Syrian refugees admitted to the U.S. to 65,000.
Donald Trump has proposed a ban on Muslim immigration, a position he later modified to include immigrants from “any nation that has been compromised by terrorism.” He also called for “extreme vetting” of immigrants.
At one rally he specifically addressed Syrian refugees coming to the U.S., encouraging people to “lock their doors.”
He added, “We don’t know who these people are. There’s no documentation. We have our incompetent people letting ’em in by the thousands, and who knows, who knows, maybe it’s ISIS.”
Myths and misconceptions regarding Syrian refugees have clouded re-settlement efforts to the point that some local Syrian refugees in Cleveland stayed in their homes during the Republican National Convention here, fearing that their mere presence in public might provoke a confrontation.
A representative of one local refugee resettlement organization said they have been contacted by Syrian refugees slated to come here, who had heard of an anti-immigration sentiment in the U.S., and asked not to come here, “because they were scared.”
Solon immigration attorney Nadeen Aljijakli said she has been getting calls from Syrian refugees, asking if they’re going to be deported if Trump is elected.
“They’re terrified,” said Aljijakli, a first-generation Syrian-American. “They ask, ‘Are they going to make us leave?'”
She added that anti-immigration sentiment “has very much instilled a fear in the Syrian community here, and for those outside of the U.S., it can be seen as not being a welcoming or safe place for them.”
Though Trump has said “there’s no way to screen these refugees,” refugee resettlement in America is a long and complicated process.
A 14-step screening process takes a minimum of 18 to 24 months and includes interviews, background checks and fingerprint checks conducted by the United Nations, U.S. State Department, FBI, National Counterterrorism Center, Immigration Services, Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security.
Syrian refugees undergo additional security screenings through a process the State Department calls Syria Enhanced Review.
Refugees generally cannot choose where they get resettled, but can be offered a choice of options. (A poll of Syrian refugees last year found that 6 percent were interested in coming to North America, preferring Europe or elsewhere in the Middle East or North Africa.)
If selected for re-settlement in the U.S., nine national networks of not-for-profit organizations distribute the refugees among 180 locations across the country.
Half the Syrian refugees who come to the U.S. are children; another quarter are adults over age 60. Only 2 percent are single males of combat age. Priorities are given to female-headed households with children.
Once they arrive, the challenges are daunting.
“The really big issue is assimilation. There are the cultural and religious differences, and the language barrier is huge,” said Aljijakli. “They’re feeling lost and depressed. They’re really starting with nothing.”
Earlier this year, Syrian refugee Ammar Hawana described what he left behind in a video produced by Vice News when he and other refugee families stayed inside, at home, rather than risk confrontation during the Republican National Convention.
In “Today we cannot go outside,” Hawana recalled the Syrian conflict that has forced some 4.5 million people to flee their homeland:
“Innocent people dying without reason, children, women, men who didn’t do anything wrong. Killed with no fear of retribution. Children kept from getting an education, kept from their fathers, kept from the love and tenderness of their parents. Tragedy. War is tragedy. Disaster.”
He recently recalled, through an interpreter, his own decision to leave Syria in 2014.
The interpreter related, “He was with a group of people, all chosen randomly, they went to the detention center, they welcomed him with a beating. It was the main reason why he left. The other reason why he left, when he came back (home) his wife was injured by a bomb shell, and she was injured very badly.”
The man who once worked for a catering firm in Syria, and has now found work as a chef in a Cleveland restaurant, said his family’s scars are more than physical.
His 12-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter are still afraid of the sound of fireworks and airplanes, he said.
Even with ample motivation to leave, the decision was hard, according to Hawana.
“It was difficult to leave the place you were born and raised in, and that you call home,” he said. “But it was also important to leave so I could feel safe and find a future somewhere else.”
When offered the chance to come to America, Hawana said it was like a dream come true. When he was in elementary school, he drew pictures of what he imagined life in the U.S. was like.
Now that he’s here, “our life has really changed for the better,” he said. “Peace and tranquility. We feel more at peace with ourselves.”
Not that there aren’t clouds on the horizon, in the form of what he described as misunderstandings about Syrian refugees and terrorism.
“Those coming over here are not looking to terrorism,” he said. “The issue of terrorism is not on their agenda. They basically are interested in survival.”
He described the misunderstandings as unfair and unjust, pointing out, “the United States was built on immigrants.”
He hopes to open his own business someday, and have his children continue their education.
Citizenship? “In sha Allah (God willing),” he said.
Hawana hopes to stay. “The country you feel safe in and that you feel cherished in and that you can build a future in, you should not leave it and you should feel like it’s your home,” he said.
Mohamed Alhori, 32, also had a dream of coming to America when he left Syria in 2012.
He was given a choice between Australia and the U.S. for resettlement, and he followed his dream. “Because you have the freedom, you can get yourself better, you can be educated,” he said.
“You can say anything you want without limits, without being afraid,” he added. “You can criticize the president or the law, and nobody can say anything or bother you.”
He was studying law in Syria but was a few credit hours shy of earning his degree. He hopes to complete that education here and become an attorney.
For now, he makes ends meet by working at a beauty supply company.
Alhori said he can understand how media reports of terrorism can elicit an anti-Muslim sentiment. But Islam is a religion of peace, he noted.
“I judge a person by his morals, not by what religion he is,” he added.
Khaled Hwisan Alhwisan, 25, his wife Ghoroub, left Syria in 2012 due to the bombing and destruction. They now have two children, ages 2 and 1, who were born before the family arrived in Cleveland in May.
His family owned a car wash in Syria and he has been working at a local food products company since arriving in Cleveland in May.
Given a choice between resettling in America or Canada, Alhwisan chose the U.S. Why? “Freedom. Democracy,” he said.
He also had heard America is beautiful, and the people are nice – a response he has found in Cleveland. He said his co-workers are like his brothers.
Alhwisan can’t understand people who associate all terrorism with Muslims or Islam. “Terrorism is from every group and religion you can find,” he said. “We left (Syria) because of terrorism. We are paying for terrorism more than anybody else.”
He doesn’t plan to return to his homeland. “No more Syria,” he said. “They don’t have hope right now.”
Muhannad Almasri, 34, had a barbershop before he left Syria in 2012. “Everything was good,” he said of the pre-war days.
Then came the bombing and destruction that still haunts some of his four children. He and his wife, Nisreen, said they left for the safety and security of the children.
When asked if he wanted to re-settle in America, Almasri readily agreed because, as he said, Americans protect religion and “have humanity.”
Though he has only been here a couple of months, Almasri said, “America is a beautiful country so far. Good beautiful people. Understanding, acceptable to our religion. The law here protects all religions.”
Nisreen Almasri said she was worried how Americans would respond to her hijab (head scarf). But she said that most Americans have been very pleasant to her, and added, “They smile when they see me. I expected the opposite.”
There was one exception in an American woman she encountered at a local mall. The woman asked about the hijab, asking how to put it on because she wanted to buy one so she could scare people for Halloween.
The couple is aware of anti-immigration sentiment in this country.
“As Muslims we are against terrorism,” Muhannad said. “Terrorism doesn’t represent us. One bad Muslim doesn’t mean all Muslims are bad.”
His wife also noted, “We have a duty here to bring the right image of Islam to the others, and show that our religion is not what they are saying.”
Both said that hope sustained them in the journey to their new homeland, and it will continue to bolster their efforts in the future.
“Hope is what keeps us going,” said Nisreen. “If you lose hope, you will be destroyed, and you will only go back, you are not going to go forward.”