But move less in­tim­i­dat­ing in Cal­i­for­nia city

For Syr­ian ar­rivals, ‘Every­thing is new’

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NEWS - SARAH PARVINI

EL CA­JON, Calif. — The scent of black tea and rice wafts through the bare apart­ment that the Zarour fam­ily has come to call home af­ter flee­ing Syria.

It’s been three months since they ar­rived in El Ca­jon, home to the sec­ond-largest Iraqi pop­u­la­tion in the United States. Rasha Zarour wraps grains of rice into the grape leaf in her palm as she pre­pares yebra, a tra­di­tional Syr­ian dish, for her chil­dren be­fore they re­turn from school.

Start­ing a new life has been dif­fi­cult, she says, but it is bet­ter than the al­ter­na­tive they es­caped four years ago: the crack of straf­ing fire from govern­ment or rebel troops in what was once the city of Homs, and ex­plo­sions that left gap­ing craters or rub­ble where bustling ur­ban life once hummed.

“Every­thing is new,” she says.

Zarour, her hus­band and her five chil­dren are among the nearly 800 Syr­ian refugees who ar­rived in San Diego County last year and set­tled in El Ca­jon. Cal­i­for­nia led the na­tion in re­set­tle­ment of Syr­ian refugees in fis­cal 2016, tak­ing in 1,450 im­mi­grants, ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter.

Iraqis have im­mi­grated to San Diego for the past 30 years, many of them flee­ing war and re­li­gious per­se­cu­tion in their moth­er­land. More than 60,000 Chaldeans, or Iraqi Chris­tians, live in El Ca­jon. Re­set­tle­ment agen­cies see El Ca­jon, with its ex­ist­ing net­work of re­sources and com­mu­nity ser­vices in Ara­bic, as a prime lo­ca­tion for refugees who don’t have fam­ily in the United States.

“The schools have Ara­bic-speak­ing staff to help the clients,” says Etl­eva Be­jko, di­rec­tor of refugee and im­mi­gra­tion ser­vices at the Jewish Fam­ily Ser­vice, which helps re­set­tle refugees. “The health care providers have the lan­guage skills to treat pa­tients.”

There, gro­cery store signs are in English and Ara­bic. Posters ad­ver­tise re­alty and in­vest­ment ser­vices in both lan­guages, along­side signs for con­certs head­lined by Arab pop stars.

At the down­town El Ca­jon farm­ers mar­ket, re­set­tle­ment agen­cies set up booths to ex­plain their ser­vices and hand out pam­phlets from the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union about the right to wear a hi­jab.

Iraqi ven­dors work one ta­ble over, sell­ing cilantro, turnips and herbs from a com­mu­nity gar­den main­tained by im­mi­grants and refugees. A sign hang­ing from their tent in Ara­bic asks shop­pers not to hag­gle over veg­etable prices.

“The com­mu­nity is there to sup­port new­com­ers,” Be­jko says. “It makes sense that quite a few Syr­ian refugees are here.”

The stress of start­ing anew has been am­pli­fied in re­cent weeks by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ex­ec­u­tive or­der that placed a 120-day ban on all refugee ad­mis­sions and an in­def­i­nite sus­pen­sion of ad­mis­sion for Syr­ian refugees.

The travel ban is on pause af­ter a fed­eral judge in Seat­tle is­sued a tem­po­rary re­strain­ing or­der, and Zarour’s hus­band, Ah­mad, who still has fam­ily in Jor­dan and Syria, won­ders whether the or­der will af­fect them.

“Why does he view us as ter­ror­ists? We are peo­ple look­ing to start a new life,” he says of Trump. “We aren’t like that. We are Mus­lims, but we are very kind.”

Syr­ian refugees are flood­ing re­set­tle­ment agen­cies with ques­tions about the im­mi­gra­tion or­der, says David Mur­phy, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the In­ter­na­tional Res­cue Com­mit­tee’s San Diego chap­ter. The In­ter­na­tional Res­cue Com­mit­tee is one of four re­set­tle­ment agen­cies work­ing with refugees in San Diego.

“Our phone lines are jammed up. Peo­ple are ask­ing, ‘What is go­ing to hap­pen to me?’” Mur­phy says. “Un­for­tu­nately, I can’t give them good an­swers. We are go­ing lit­er­ally day by day. Refugees trav­el­ing to­day know there can be prob­lems along the way.”

The move from Dara to San Diego wasn’t a smooth tran­si­tion for Rana al Kard’s fam­ily. They had lived in a vil­lage in the south­west­ern city where the streets were lined with the homes of peo­ple they knew. Their en­tire fam­ily lived on the same road.

But Dara, like the city of Aleppo, has long been di­vided be­tween Syr­ian govern­ment and op­po­si­tion forces. One of al Kard’s sons was killed in the con­flict, and an­other was in­jured when a sniper opened fire on her hus­band’s truck. Her sur­viv­ing son, Mo­hamad, lives with a tube in his throat that al­lows him to breathe.

Com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions that aid Syr­ian refugees say many have some­one in their fam­ily who re­quires spe­cial med­i­cal care. Some come with nu­tri­tional prob­lems; oth­ers ar­rive par­a­lyzed from the war or are bat­tling post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der.

Al Kard says she is grate­ful to be in Cal­i­for­nia, where doc­tors can help her son re­cover. Her seven chil­dren, she says, are also happy to be in the United States be­cause they look for­ward to go­ing to school and pur­su­ing their dreams.

“It is a great gift for us,” al Kard, 38, says in Ara­bic.

Un­like her hus­band, Khaled, and daugh­ter Noor, al Kard does not have to at­tend the manda­tory work­shops and English classes re­quired of adult refugees. The re­set­tle­ment agency al­lowed her to stay home be­cause she has to care for Mo­hamad and her four other chil­dren who are still in school.

The fam­ily lives in a three- bed­room apart­ment about 15 min­utes from El Ca­jon, but hopes to move to El Ca­jon for the Ara­bic-speak­ing com­mu­nity and lower rent. Noor al Kard rides the bus to take English classes there and has al­ready made new friends since ar­riv­ing in Novem­ber.

“I feel safe be­ing around my friends there and be­ing able to speak the lan­guage around peo­ple like me,” the 22-year-old says.

She ap­pre­ci­ates be­ing part of a com­mu­nity that read­ily ac­cepts and un­der­stands her, she says. With­out that kind of sup­port, she would “go to work­shops and come right back home.”

“Now I’m en­cour­aged to go there and spend time,” she says. “I can go to the Ara­bic mar­ket and walk around and dis­cover the area.”

But Rana al Kard’s hus­band is strug­gling with the move, she says. Noor nods in agree­ment as she pours small cups of thick Syr­ian cof­fee for the fam­ily.

“I’m so happy to be here, but I see my hus­band and I can’t even tell him I’m happy,” al Kard says.

In the evenings, when she tries to make snacks for the kids, her hus­band seems re­sent­ful of her joy, she says. He hopes to re­turn to Jor­dan or Syria, where his sib­lings still live.

“He feels a dif­fer­ent pres­sure to pro­vide for the fam­ily,” she says.

Only two other Syr­ian fam­i­lies live in the apart­ment com­plex. One of them,

Nabiha An­dani, stops by for a visit on a week­day af­ter­noon. Her two daugh­ters play with al Kard’s chil­dren, and they of­ten drink cof­fee and eat break­fast to­gether in the morn­ings.

When al Kard caught a cold a few weeks ago, An­dani took her to the clinic and watched over her at home. It’s a friend­ship that would not have ex­isted in Syria — the pair lived six hours apart.

An­dani says she cried for four days when she heard of Trump’s ex­ec­u­tive or­der. Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad forced her fam­ily to leave, she says, but Trump is no bet­ter if he tries to force them back to a place where they face death.

“When I came to the U.S., I thought I came to free­dom,” she says through an in­ter­preter. “Our free­dom is be­ing taken away again.”

An­dani wor­ries that her plans to se­cure a green card and help her fam­ily move to Amer­ica have been de­stroyed. Un­der a ban, they wouldn’t be able to visit, ei­ther.

“Who will take care of them now?” she asks.

Two years af­ter the Syr­ian civil war be­gan, Ah­mad Zarour aban­doned his small su­per­mar­ket in Homs and gave up his work mold­ing cus­tom ceilings. The fam­ily set­tled in Da­m­as­cus be­fore it too be­came too dan­ger­ous to live in. They fled to the Zaatari refugee camp, a squalid, sprawl­ing out­post near the Jor­da­nian- Syr­ian bor­der. They spent 20 days in the camp be­fore they moved to an­other town.

Zarour could not work legally. He found odd jobs, ac­cept­ing pay that was barely enough to feed his chil­dren.

“If the govern­ment knew I was work­ing, they would ar­rest me,” Zarour says, speak­ing through an in­ter­preter.

Early in the fam­ily’s stay in Jor­dan, they reg­is­tered as refugees with the United Na­tions. Even­tu­ally, af­ter two years of in­ter­views, the U.N. High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees re­ferred them for re­set­tle­ment in the United States.

When they fi­nally ar­rived in Cal­i­for­nia last Novem­ber, the fam­ily moved into a mo­tel in El Ca­jon. Find­ing an apart­ment was dif­fi­cult be­cause of a hous­ing short­age, Zarour says. The fam­ily lived in the mo­tel for 17 days.

Ad­just­ing to a new life in Amer­ica has bruised the pride of a man ac­cus­tomed to pro­vid­ing for his fam­ily.

He strug­gles to learn the skills taught in work­shops man­dated by re­set­tle­ment agen­cies — ba­sics such as learn­ing English, nav­i­gat­ing pub­lic trans­porta­tion or how to open a bank ac­count. At­tend­ing

those classes is tied to the fi­nan­cial aid the fam­ily re­ceives.

To fit all seven peo­ple in their small two-bed­room apart­ment, the five chil­dren sleep wall-to-wall in the master bed­room. He and his wife sleep in the spare room.

The three couches in his liv­ing room were do­nated.

Be­fore the war in Syria, he had a home of his own, lived near his sib­lings and held a govern­ment job that helped him pay the bills. As he places a glass of tea on the card­board box he now uses as a cof­fee ta­ble, Zarour won­ders if he will ever find a piece of the hap­pi­ness he once knew.

Here, gro­cery store signs are in English and Ara­bic. Posters ad­ver­tise re­alty and in­vest­ment ser­vices in both lan­guages, along­side signs for con­certs head­lined by Arab pop stars.

Los An­ge­les Times/ROBERT GAU­THIER

Rana al Kard (left) and neigh­bor and fel­low Syr­ian refugee Nabiha An­dani sip tea as al Kard talks about her fam­ily’s jour­ney to Cal­i­for­nia and their hap­pi­ness and strug­gles in the United States.

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