Syrian refugees flock to Michigan
Bullets rocketed sporadically through the desert as Fasel Alomar, clutching her 8-month-old son, crossed from Syria into Jordan in June 2012.
After the Syrian revolution brought kidnappings, killings and devastation to her home city of Homs in Syria, Alomar and her husband, Abdul Jaleel Aholani, realized their only option was to flee the country until the violence ended. More than three years would pass before they were settled again.
Because he could not leave Syria immediately, Aholani sent Alomar and four children to Jordan alone. Thinking they would only be gone for a few months, Alomar brought only one small suitcase with her. With the baby, it was all she could carry.
“We had to cross the border at night,” Alomar says through an interpreter, recalling that evening from her apartment in Hamtramck. “We were 200 families, just wandering around in the desert. You’re not supposed to make a sound.”
Border guards roamed the area. Whenever a patrol came near, everyone laid down flat on the ground to avoid detection. Guards sprayed bullets at random. Alomar’s daughter fainted every time she heard the shooting.
“At one time, the spotlight was only a few feet away from us being discovered,” she says. “After the guard left, we just all ran through.”
Alomar arrived in Michigan with her husband last October. They now reside in Hamtramck with the children, ages 5 to 13. Aholani works as a fabricator. Alomar cares for the children and worries about her family, still in refugee camps in Jordan.
The family is just one example of the constant flow of refugees coming to Michigan, in spite of actions by Gov. Rick Snyder to suspend the state’s acceptance of Syrian refugees after the terror attacks in Paris last November. Resettlement agencies and charitable organizations that assist with the refugees’ needs say they have experienced virtually no change.
“It didn’t affect us,” says Ken Fouty, who works as community outreach manager for Lutheran Social Services of Michigan — one of the largest resettlement agencies in the state. “There was no impact on us whatsoever.”
According to the latest government statistics, approximately 90 Syrians are among the 1,860 refugees who have resettled in Michigan since October. The refugee families come from areas such as Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey, and several local charitable organizations including Lutheran Social Services and the Syrian American Rescue Network play essential roles assisting them start new lives. SARN, for instance, a volunteer-based organization, helps refugees find housing, furniture and housewares once they arrive.
“When they come, the resettlement agencies have very limited funds,” says Jihad Alharash, a SARN board member. “All the families get from the government is $925 per person. Whatever the agencies spend, they spend out of that budget.”
After years of processing and waiting to get to the United States, families usually have nothing when they land at Metro Airport. Without assistance they would live in hotels until they find work — an expense that could be devastating.
Bashar Imam, another SARN member who also is a landlord to many refugee families in Dearborn, says the area offers an open, supportive community, which is key to a successful transition to the United States.
“Why make it harder to make the transition?” Imam says. “Don’t send them to a state where there is no community to accept them. I trust them. I trust the screening process. If I had a feeling that in any way they were a threat to the security of the United States, I would not be part of this.”
SARN finds affordable homes or apartments for the families. A committee collects furniture, appliances, dishes, sheets and other housewares at a warehouse in Royal Oak to distribute. Volunteers even stock pantries and refrigerators with groceries.
“Imagine your life not in your own community,” Imam says.“It’s very important to help the Syrian refugees to stay together in their own community so they can adapt and assimilate.”
‘The living here is safe’
SARN members welcomed a man named Moheydeen, his wife, and five children to Detroit on March 7. When the revolution in Syria started, Moheydeen, who would only give his first name for fear of retribution back in Syria, said his family had lived in an apartment in downtown Aleppo.
“My house was destroyed,” he says, as Imam interprets. “I had another house outside of Aleppo and we moved to it.”
Not long after, the Free Syrian Army took positions around their town, and more bombs began raining down. In 2013, they fled to Egypt.
“I had no money — just the shirt on my back,” he says. “It was pretty hard when I first arrived. I was not comfortable at all in Egypt.”
The family is now temporarily staying in one of Imam’s houses in Dearborn until he can find an apartment better suited to their severely disabled daughter. The 12-year-old son wants to study to become a doctor.
Imam also manages a team that prepares homes for incoming refugees. One of these workers is Lousy al-Zouabi, who arrived in Dearborn in May 2015. He’s from Daraa, Syria — a southern border city near Jordan. He left in 2012 with his four children.
“They were fighting and the government was catching people — they were doing demonstrations,” al-Zouabi says through an interpreter.
He loves his new life in America.
“The living here is safe,” he said. “I’m not worried about somebody stopping me for nothing and sending me to jail. ... Back home, you never know. Even if you do nothing, they can take you.”
Imam bustles around the house making preparations.
“If they have girls, we paint a room pink; and if they have boys, we paint the room blue,” he says.
After inspecting the improvements to the kitchen, he looks out to the backyard. The grass is green, and a gnarly-trunked tree stands in the corner.
“Yes, the children will play here,” Imam says. “They will have fun.”
Once in Michigan, refugees are required by law to become self-sufficient in 90 days.
“The first two weeks are the most intense,” Fouty says.
In those 14 days, the families apply for assistance programs available to American citizens, such as Social Security, Medicaid and medical exams with the Department of Health and Human Services.
At home in Hamtramck
In Hamtramck, Aholani and Alomar’s three-bedroom apartment buzzes with activity. At the top of a flight of stairs sits a bicycle. Aholani joyfully greets Imam, kissing him on both cheeks. The children call greetings, frolicking around the bright yellow living room.
Imam removes his shoes, and takes a seat on the couch. A child shows him her homework.
“Why are you writing in Arabic?” Imam asks. “No, no, no, no, no, you go get a dictionary in English. We don’t write in Arabic. I’ll get you a dictionary.”
Gesturing to Aholani, Imam says, “He’s from Homs — we call it the crater of the revolution.”
Before fleeing Syria, Aholani worked as a government clerk.
“While I was living with my folks, I bought some land, and slowly, I built the house on it,” Aholani says, as Imam translates. “It took 10 years.”
Aholani and Alomar lived in the home only one year before the revolution started and a rocket demolished the house. They lived in Damascus for a month before crossing the border to Jordan.
A rich, earthy scent wafts through the room as Alomar brings in a tray of coffee in tiny, intricately painted cups.
“They made it home,” Imam says.
Vivian Hughbanks is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based freelance writer.
Michigan tops with Syrians
From May 1, 2011, (shortly after the Syrian civil war began) to May 31, 2016, 4,674 Syrian refugees resettled in the U.S. The following is a breakdown by state:
■New Hampshire: 8
■New Jersey: 158
■New Mexico: 10
■New York: 165
■North Carolina: 190
■Rhode Island: 34
■South Carolina: 2
■West Virginia: 1
These states had none: Alabama, Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming. Also, the District of Columbia.
concern in U.S.
Last November, shortly after the Paris terrorist attacks, a Gallup poll found that Americans, by 60 to 37 percent, opposed taking in refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war. In 1978, there was a 57 to 32 percent opposition to accepting Indochinese boat people, and in 1946, after World War II, the public was against welcoming displaced people from Europe, including Jews, by 72 to 16 percent.