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For this Syrian refugee family, starting anew in the U.S. is a solitary struggle

November 7, 2016 at 6:30 PM EDT
When the Darbi family arrived in New Jersey, they brought relief and hope for escaping a war zone in Syria and building new lives. But today the family is struggling financially and finding few means of support. Special correspondent Marcia Biggs follows up with the family she met when they first arrived in the U.S.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In this campaign, the topic of refugees from war-torn Syria has been a political flash point.

We want to look at what it’s been like for refugees themselves. In 2015, just under 1,700 Syrian refugees were resettled in the United States. This year, that number has shot up to more than 12,000, a significant increase, but few in comparison to Canada, which has taken in 33,000 this year, or Europe, which has absorbed hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the war at home.

Last year, special correspondent Marcia Biggs introduced us to one Syrian family that arrived in the U.S. as part of that first group. She recently checked back in with them amid a difficult transition to life here, and sent us this report.

MARCIA BIGGS: A typical afternoon in this New Jersey home, mom in the kitchen, son reading on the sofa and preteen daughter chatting on her smartphone. It’s a mundane reality compared to the horror they have fled, a war zone in Syria, overcrowded refugee camps in Jordan.

We first met the Darbi family last year. Newly arrived, they were five of the roughly 1,700 Syrians resettled in the U.S. in 2015, living with the help of grants from the federal government and Church World Service, one of nine NGOs organizations assisting refugee resettlement, helping them find housing and enroll in language classes.

For husband and wife Mohamed and Amira, it was the chance for a new life. Their three children were starting the first week of school. Hope was in the air. But today:

MOHAMED DARBI, Resettled Syrian Refugee (through translator): I’m surprised that, a year later, I’m still in the same place. In fact, I feel that I have gone backwards. I feel like, next year, I might fail. They should have given us more time for school, so that we could learn the language.

MARCIA BIGGS: Five months after their arrival, the financial assistance ended and Mohamed struggled to find a steady job. Once a carpenter in Syria, he is currently doing manual labor at a construction site, having abandoned language classes.

Without a car, he cycles to job sites and barely makes enough to afford this two-bedroom apartment. Six-year-old Shaker (ph) sleeps in his parents’ room.

MARCIA BIGGS: When was the last time you spoke to someone from Church World Service?

MOHAMED DARBI (through translator): It was a long time ago. In the office, they treated us as if we need special connections for a simple request. How am I going to ask them for a job?

MARCIA BIGGS: According to Church World Service, his frustration is typical of refugees who have high expectations and lack understanding of the concept of starting from the ground up.

We spoke with Sarah Krause, director of programs.

SARAH KRAUSE, Church World Service: It’s a challenge to find something in the refugee’s chosen field. And that’s going to take a little more time.

It also takes time to learn English. Oftentimes, in families, both the husband and the wife need to work in order to really support the family, just as is the case with American families. We receive a very limited amount of money to provide those initial resettlement services. It’s $2,025 per individual. That’s not a lot of money to get someone started in the United States.

MARCIA BIGGS: Just over 300 Syrian refugees arrived in New Jersey in the last year. Like the Darbi family, most of them were resettled here in the shadow of New York City’s Freedom Tower. But some people argue that placing them here may have actually hurt their chances for integration.

MAYOR MOHAMED KHAIRULLAH, Prospect Park, New Jersey: Most of the Syrian refugees that are coming into New Jersey are being settled in either Jersey City or Elizabeth, which really doesn’t have any Syrian community there.

MARCIA BIGGS: Mohamed Khairullah is also a Syrian refugee. Born in Aleppo, he was just a child in 1980 when his family fled a crackdown by Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1991, settling in Prospect Park, New Jersey, about 20 miles from the Darbis.

He’s been mayor here for over a decade. He believes that resettling refugees in Arab neighborhoods like his would provide a support network, and make finding them the right job and getting them into English classes easier.

MOHAMED KHAIRULLAH: Most of them, you speak to them and they say, listen, we want to work, we want to provide for our families. We don’t want to go from one organization to another, asking for help. It’s humiliating to us.

And these private organizations need to speak to us, need to communicate with us, need to let us know ahead of time when there is a refugee family coming in, so we could try to find a home for them in our areas.

MARCIA BIGGS: While the Darbis say their neighbors are friendly, not one of them is Arab, and the family has very little interaction with them.

Do you have any kind of a support network? If there is an emergency, who do you call?

MOHAMED DARBI (through translator): There is no one.

MARCIA BIGGS: The children are their ray of hope. Last year, then 11-year-old Hajar and 13-year-old Nabiha couldn’t speak a lick of English. But this year:

What’s your favorite music? What do you dance to?

NABIHA DARBI, Resettled Syrian Refugee: “Rolling in the Deep.”

MARCIA BIGGS: Adele? You like Adele?


MARCIA BIGGS: One other change we noticed? Hajar began wearing a hijab, something she says she was proud to do when she turned 12 years old, and a decision her parents say she made on her own.

MOHAMED DARBI (through translator): I felt that she was still young. I told her maybe you should wait. But she insisted.

MARCIA BIGGS: Do you know why she wanted to wear it earlier?

AMIRA DARBI, Resettled Syrian Refugee (through translator): Maybe it was because, after she started school here in the States, she wanted to show people her culture and traditions.

MARCIA BIGGS: The girls say they have been bullied in school, often because of their religion.

HAJAR DARBI, Resettled Syrian Refugee (through translator): I didn’t just wear the hijab because I have to. It was because kids at school were telling my sister to take off her hijab.

They were telling her that this is America and we don’t wear hijab here.

A few weeks later, I started wearing the hijab and the kids at school started asking me, are you Muslim, are you Muslim? And I said, yes, I am Muslim. It’s nobody’s business but mine.

MARCIA BIGGS: Even with these obstacles, the girls say they are happy in school, love their teachers, and their classes. Hajar still wants to be a doctor, but Nabiha says she wants to be an artist.

Do you feel like you’re home here?



HAJAR DARBI: And our future is here, not in Syria.

MARCIA BIGGS: Those are very big words for a young girl, and for Nabiha, who has more memories of Syria, it’s much more complicated.

NABIHA DARBI: I don’t know. This is a good country. And I like it. If there is no war in Syria, I will come back. But I will visit this country.

I don’t know in which country I would be better, because my family, some of them in Turkey, some of it in Syria, and some of it in Jordan. I want all of them in one country.

MARCIA BIGGS: Her English doesn’t suffice to describe the painful separation of displacement.

NABIHA DARBI (through translator): I am used to having them around ever since I was a child. If I can’t see them, I don’t think I can carry on in this life. Every member of my family is in a different country. I can’t even comprehend this.

MARCIA BIGGS: The family also arrived in one of the most politically polarizing times in recent U.S. history, with parts of that conflict surrounding both Syrian refugees and Islam, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie shutting the door on Syrian refugees in his state, Donald Trump calling for a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the U.S. and making so- called extreme vetting of refugees a campaign issue.

DONALD TRUMP (R), Presidential Nominee: And we now have them in our country, and wait until you see. This is going to be the great Trojan horse.

MOHAMED DARBI (through translator): He’s talking about a plan he doesn’t know anything about. It took a whole year of vetting before we were allowed to come here. Does he want a 10-year vetting process? The war would be over by then.

We didn’t come to America with any bad intentions. We came here asking for safety. If our country weren’t completely destroyed, we wouldn’t have left.

MARCIA BIGGS: How do those comments make you feel?

MOHAMED DARBI (through translator): I feel like an innocent man in jail for a crime I didn’t commit. I feel frustrated. I keep asking myself, is it possible that some people here might think this way? When I think of Americans, they are innovators. They reached the moon. But with this type of thinking, you can’t reach the moon.

MARCIA BIGGS: So, have we disappointed you?

MOHAMED DARBI (through translator): No. I’m telling you, the American people do not disappoint me. But, as the saying goes, the politicians are throwing gasoline on a fire.

MARCIA BIGGS: Despite the difficulties, the Darbis remain grateful, even hospitable.

MOHAMED DARBI (through translator): The children have become safe and secure, and now they have a future. It means they are living a normal life. I’m beyond exhausted. I was expecting better. But when it comes to normal life, it’s wonderful.

MARCIA BIGGS: A normal life and a hope for a better tomorrow. For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Marcia Biggs in Jersey City, New Jersey.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Since our interview, Church World Service has reached out to both Mayor Khairullah and the Darbi family in an attempt to improve the process of integration.