After Trump's Election, Uncertainty For Syrian Refugees In The U.S.

Nov 24, 2016
Originally published on November 24, 2016 7:49 am

Osama, a Syrian refugee who resettled five months ago in Princeton, N.J., did not sleep on election night after listening to the results.

"The whole world is affected by American elections," he said during an English lesson with his wife, Ghada, the next morning at their dining room table. The family, which still has relatives in Syria, has asked that it be identified by first names only.

Osama knows about American voters' divided response to Syrian refugees and President-elect Donald Trump's campaign promises to block Syrian refugees and send back those taken in by the U.S. But he isn't sure what to expect.

His confusion over what's ahead mirrors the concerns of many other refugee families amid post-election reports of hate crimes against minorities.

"If they bring us back, it's not a problem for us," Osama said, weighing the post-election possibility of a reversal of his U.S. resettlement and a return to a refugee camp in Jordan or even to Syria. His words seemed a bit of bravado amid the uncertainty.

Osama and his family have benefited so far from the generosity of Americans. His family's resettlement was made possible by the support of Princeton's Nassau Presbyterian Church, as well as community volunteers.

"Your situation is safe; you can stay here, no problem," Beverly Leach assures them. Leach heads a group of volunteer English-language instructors for this refugee couple.

But the Nassau church support group she is part of is anxious about implications for refugees after the election. The fearful calls and emails began coming in the day after the election, says senior pastor Dave Davis.

On the same day, Princeton's mayor, Liz Lempart, invited him and other faith leaders and community leaders to meet "to allay fears she was already hearing from immigrant communities," Davis says.

Davis' pastoral duties now include reassuring Osama's family members that their future is secure. But the future of the U.S. refugee resettlement program is now in doubt.

"That's more complicated, and probably that's where the fears really lie," he says.

The Obama administration, after admitting around 2,000 Syrian refugees during the first few years of the war, brought in around 12,000 this year.

The Nassau Presbyterian Church has a long history of supporting refugees, including Cubans, Vietnamese, Bosnians and Iraqis, says Davis. In the current political climate, when Americans are divided on Syrian resettlement, it has been a high-pressure good deed.

It's been almost six months since Osama's family was introduced to the congregation. At the end of October, he and Ghada were introduced again at an adult education class before the Sunday service.

The visual change in the couple since they first arrived in Princeton was striking. Osama, in a gray puffer jacket and jeans, had become more confident. Ghada wore a stylish knit dress; a colorful headscarf framed her soft, round face. She baked Syrian sweets to go with the coffee at the gathering.

"They are doing very well. Ghada wrote her first check yesterday, the date, the name and the amount," Tom Charles told the congregation.

Charles, who heads the church's resettlement committee, meets with the family each week to go over finances. Refugees admitted to the U.S. under the federal resettlement program are expected to start working within months after arrival and become self-sufficient as government benefits taper off.

Most refugees are already working at the five-month mark. But Osama was blinded and his face scarred in an artillery attack on his uncle's home in a Damascus suburb in 2012. His disability is a hurdle.

The October church meeting was Osama's way to connect with the wider congregation through an interpreter. "We had a normal life" in Syria, he told them. "I had a small factory." He provided for his family.

His ravaged face tells the story of war and loss. But his most powerful message was unexpected, delivered in the form of a joke.

"Osama, can you tell us about Tarzan's last words?" Charles deadpanned to an audience unsure of what to expect.

"Tarzan's last famous words were, 'Who put grease on the vines?' " Osama replied in Arabic.

The audience politely waited for the translation before exploding with laughter and applause.

With a simple joke, Osama made a larger point: I am not so different from you.

But American culture is very different from family expectations learned from movies and social media. Excitement was mixed with nerves around some Halloween traditions, as the holiday approached in late October.

"We just said, it's fun, it's about collecting candy and dressing up. I think it was pretty strange for them," says Sue Jennings, part of the Nassau church team. She delivered donated costumes, a dozen pumpkins and guidance on the unfamiliar holiday.

"A jack-o-lantern is a pumpkin with a face," she explained to the Syrian children at the kitchen table, elbow-deep in orange pumpkin goop.

They knew about pumpkins, an ingredient in a savory Syrian stew. Their father, following as best he could from his perch on the couch, asked, "Why is there an American holiday that wastes so much food?"

He had been particularly anxious about Halloween, concerned that it conflicted with his Muslim faith. But he got caught up in his children's excitement over the parade at school.

He couldn't see the costumes but insisted on approving the choices, banning anything scary, involving black magic or Harry Potter.

"Superman, good," he declared, and the Disney costumes also got his OK.

On Oct. 31, his four children walked the parade route with their elementary school classmates — now part of the community that welcomed their arrival, the new start made possible by generous church support. Ghada stood with the other elementary school parents and waved as the children walked by with their friends. She marveled at the school principal wearing battery-operated cat ears and a tail.

"A hundred percent different than Syria," she said. Then she walked into the school for the Halloween party.

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We're going to check back now with a Syrian refugee family and also the New Jersey church group that is committed to helping them forge a new life in America. NPR's Deborah Amos has been following this family's story. We have heard about their arrival and the challenges of resettlement here on our program. And the family has now been in the United States for almost six months now. And Deb joins us to talk about their progress. Deb, good morning.


GREENE: So just remind us briefly, if you can, about this family. Who are they?

AMOS: So there's Osama, the father. He was blinded in 2012 in an artillery attack in a Damascus suburb. There's Ghada, the mother of the four children. NPR has agreed not to reveal their last names or the names of their children because most of their family are still in Syria. They were refugees in Jordan for three years. They arrived in the U.S. in May.

GREENE: OK. And they've been resettling in the state of New Jersey. You've been following their progress - how they've been doing. What is the latest on their story?

AMOS: All the kids are in school. The two boys are on a soccer team. Osama has started a training course at a vocational institute. You know, at this point, most refugees would already be working, but he is blind, and so that has presented a challenge. And the church resettlement people say this is the toughest case that they've ever had because of that. There are also these cultural hurdles. Try to imagine figuring out Halloween if you have never seen it before.

GREENE: Yeah, strange holiday if you're - if you're not used to it.

AMOS: Yes. So today, in my report, I'm going to start at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, N.J. This is a congregation that has supported the family. They haven't actually seen them in six months. Tom Charles makes the introductions, and he heads the church's committee on refugee resettlement.

TOM CHARLES: Good morning, everyone.


CHARLES: Good morning, Osama.

OSAMA: Good morning.


CHARLES: Good morning, Ghada.

GHADA: Good morning.

AMOS: It's been six months since Osama and Ghada were in this church, and the change is striking. Osama in a gray puffer jacket and jeans - he's gotten more confident. Ghada is in a stylish dress. A colorful headscarf frames her soft, round face.

CHARLES: They're doing very well. Ghada wrote her first check yesterday.


CHARLES: The date, the name, the amount.

AMOS: The family must become self-sufficient. It's a requirement of the resettlement program. Osama's disability is the hurdle for work and for English. Ghada is way ahead. His children are learning quickly at school.

CHARLES: What has been the worst thing you have found in America?

OSAMA: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: The English language.


CHARLES: This church meeting is Osama's way to connect with a wider congregation, to tell them who he is. He says through a translator, I owned a small factory in Syria. I provided for my family. His face, scarred by a blinding artillery attack, tells the story of war and loss. He has one more message. Osama insists on telling a joke, and he's worked it out with Tom Charles.

CHARLES: And, Osama, can you tell us the joke about Tarzan's last words.

OSAMA: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Tarzan's last famous words were - who put grease on the vine? (Laughter).


AMOS: With this simple joke, Osama has made a larger point - I'm not so different from you. But American culture is very different from what the family expected. For example, this is their first Halloween.

SUE JENNINGS: We just said it's fun. It's about collecting candy and dressing up. I think it was pretty strange for them.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Foreign language spoken).

AMOS: On an afternoon in late October, Sue Jennings, part of the Nassau church team, delivers donated costumes and some guidance.

JENNINGS: A jack-o-lantern is a pumpkin with a face.


JENNINGS: The kids are already elbow deep in orange goo.

Do you have Halloween in Syria?

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #1: Never in Syria - no.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: (Foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #1: In Jordan - no. In Syria - no. Every Arabic - no.

AMOS: They know about pumpkins, part of a savory Syrian stew. Their father, Osama, asks - why is there an American holiday that wastes so much food? He's been the most anxious about Halloween. Does it conflict with his Muslim faith? But he gets caught up in his children's excitement about an upcoming parade at school.

OSAMA: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: (Foreign language spoken) - Mickey Mouse?

AMOS: He can't see the costumes, but he insists on approving the choices - nothing scary, no black magic. He vetoes Harry Potter, but he's OK with Disney for the girls and Superman for the boys.

OSAMA: Superman good.

AMOS: Oh, Superman.


AMOS: OK, yeah, Superman.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #2: Yeah, Superman.


AMOS: At school, the four Syrian kids walked the Halloween parade route with their classmates, now part of the community that welcomed their arrival, the new start made possible by generous church support. This is one part of America, but another part emerges after the presidential elections that seemed to signal there could be a harsher response to their presence here.

BEVERLY LEACH: OK. This is a new - something new.

AMOS: Osama stayed up late following election returns. The next morning, he and Ghada have an English lesson with Beverly Leach and a church interpreter.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Twelve o'clock till 7 o'clock in the morning.

LEACH: Osama stayed up all night?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: He stayed up all night because the whole world is affected by elections.

AMOS: He wants to know - do we have to go back? Could the new American president ban head coverings for Muslim women?

LEACH: You are here, and you can stay here - no problems.

AMOS: On this morning, Beverly Leach assures him that nothing will change. We support you, and we have welcomed you. But he continues to ask questions days after the vote.

GREENE: OK - listening there to my colleague Deb Amos following the story of the Syrian refugee family. And, Deb, Osama, the father - clearly anxious, wondering what this election means. What about the church group that helped them? How are they responding to the election?

AMOS: Yeah. I talked to Dave Davis. He's the pastor at Nassau Presbyterian. And he said there were anxious calls that came the morning after that vote.

DAVE DAVIS: Some of the first conversations I had were with the volunteers who've spent so much time with the family, wanting to be assured that they could be supporting and let the family know we're there and that were surrounding them. That type of fear for the family and the family's sense of fear is exactly the type of anxiety that was percolating in the hours and the days after the election.

AMOS: That's Pastor Dave Davis. The family and the church is worried about the political atmosphere, but they've got more practical challenges. Osama is just starting at the vocational center. Ghada has to learn more English to learn how to drive. And like most refugees, there's medical catch up. Especially there's lot of dental appointments for the kids. The church support group says this resettlement is taking more time, and it may run past the one-year commitment for this intense support.

GREENE: OK. That's my colleague NPR's Deb Amos, following the story of one Syrian refugee family in New Jersey. Deb, thanks.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.