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WUNC reports from Greensboro about Guilford County and surrounding area.

Refugee Shares Hopes, Fears in America

Doha Altaki and her husband Majd live in Greensboro after fleeing from Syria in 2013.
Courtesy of Majd Altaki
Doha Altaki and her husband Majd live in Greensboro after fleeing from Syria in 2013.

For the past few years, Doha Altaki and her husband Majd were without a country to truly call home. They are Syrian refugees and fled their home in 2013 after the war began.

The Altakis lived in a mansion with all new furniture in the countryside of Damascus. When the war began, Doha  Altaki said she took the needed measures to protect herself from bombs or air strikes.

“It’s safe for me to sit behind the wall or sometimes I put a table and sit down under it,” she said. “One time I spent about a week in my home, I cannot move out of my home all the time. There is no phone, no electricity, no water, many people don’t have food to eat.”

Then it became too dangerous to live in Syria and the Altakis were forced out of their home. They left with just the clothes on their back. Altaki's husband managed to take their wedding picture with them before they left.

When they fled, Altaki’s husband made a promise to her.

“When I left Syria I think in about two months I’ll come back, and my husband he said ‘Ok, I promise you, two months we’ll come back to our home," she said. "It’ll be better.’”

It didn’t get better. The couple spent the next three and a half years in Egypt. Then, finally, they received the news that their refugee file was being reviewed. However, they still didn’t know where they would end up.

In 2016, some 3,342 refugees settled in North Carolina according to U.S. State Department data. North Carolina received more refugees than all but six states last year, and it was the most refugees resettled in North Carolina of any year in recent memory.

Refugee initial settlements in North Carolina by year.
Credit Refugee Processing Center / U.S. State Department
U.S. State Department
Refugee initial settlements in North Carolina by year.

Church World Services, Inc. is a faith-based nonprofit organization that helps resettle refugees. Their goal is to help them transition to life in America so refugees can become self-sufficient.

Legal Services Coordinator, Katherine Reynolds said refugees have no choice where they end up.Katherine Reynolds CWS

Katherine Reynolds CWS
Credit Naomi Prioleau / WUNC
Katherine Reynolds is the Legal Services Coordinator for Church World Services, Inc. in Greensboro.

“Refugees cannot self-select resettlement and even when a refugee is identified by UNHCR and interviewed for resettlement that refugee cannot choose the country that they are resettled to,” she said.

The UNHCR is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They ultimately determine who is or isn't a refugee.

The UNHCR then interviews a refugee and sends a resettlement referral to the U.S.

If the referral is accepted, the U.S. does its own face to face interview.

If the refugee passes, they are then allowed into the country.

The process usually takes about two to three years.

Arrivals by state so far this year
Credit Refugee Processing Center / U.S. State Department
U.S. State Department
Arrivals from Oct. 1, 2016 through Feb. 28, 2017 by state.

The city of Greensboro resettles about 1,000 refugees per year, much to the delight of Greensboro Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter.

“Greensboro is a welcoming community,” she said. “The city council passed a resolution a couple of years ago that we were a welcoming city. We also passed that we are a stranger to neighbor city.”

While Altaki is grateful to be in America, she still worries about her family. She hasn’t seen her siblings in six years. Two live in Syria and she has a brother in the Netherlands.

She said she worries if she tries to visit them that she won’t be allowed back in the country.

“This is something bad for me really,” she said. "All the time I wonder, maybe I will never see my brother or sister.”

States that received the most refugee resettlements in fiscal 2016
Credit Refugee Processing Center / U.S. State Department
U.S. State Department
States that received the most refugee resettlements in fiscal 2016

Syria is still on the Trump administration's travel ban, although two federal judges have ruled against the latest ban.

The U.S. accepts one percent of vulnerable refugees per year.

A vulnerable refugee is someone who is fleeing from a war torn country, human trafficking or domestic violence or other situations that qualify them for resettlement.

Abuzuaiter said the refugees she's met in the Triad area make her proud.

“Many of our immigrant and refugee communities are hardworking they want to do just as any other person in our community,” she said. “They want to be good people and getting to know them will enrich everyone’s life.”

Altaki and her husband have been in North Carolina for almost eight months.

Her husband is working, but Altaki is still looking for a job. Until then, she remains hopeful for her future here.

“I wanted to be a part of this community,” she said. I like this. I wanted to be an active citizen here as a Syrian woman and also to live in peace in this country.”

Naomi P. Brown joined WUNC in January 2017.
Jason deBruyn is the WUNC health reporter, a beat he took in 2020. He has been in the WUNC newsroom since 2016.
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