| Julie Zauzmer |
WASHINGTON (WP-BLOOM) – Khaled Smaisem’s nightmare began with a phone call – his own.
Details of a private conversation the former Syrian journalist had with an interview subject were broadcast on state-run television. At once, Smaisem said he knew that his government, accused of brutally attacking anyone seen as a threat, now was targeting him. That week, he was charged as a terrorist, he said.
Three terrifying years later – after fleeing his native land on foot, living in limbo in Lebanon under threat of arrest or worse, and then, finally, starting over in an unfamiliar land – he says he has no plans to ever go home again.
“Going to visit Syria is going to visit graves,” he said.
Smaisem, his wife and his four children are among a small number of Syrians – 352 as of mid-December – who have been allowed to resettle in the United States since 2011.
The United States has been criticised for what some see as moving too slowly to take in refugees from Syria, where almost half the country’s citizens have been forced to flee their homes since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began in 2011. Six million have been displaced within the country, and more than three million have left, mostly stopping in refugee camps in neighbouring countries.
But six of them are here, in a sparsely furnished apartment in Alexandria, Virginia. Smaisem is struggling to learn English, which has made finding a job hard.
His wife, Fadia, isn’t quite comfortable with resuming her career until she has a grasp of the language, either. But the children appear to finding their new home to their liking.
Four-year-old Radwa is wearing a Lego bag on her head and tumbling on the couch with her three-year-old brother Hammada on a recent visit. Enana and Lidya, 15 and 16, had just walked through the door from their new high school, wearing T-shirts – advertising a rapper they’ve recently been introduced to – rather than the hijabs they wore in Syria.
The US State Department has promised that the United States will take in 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next two years.
Their experiences – both the horrors they witnessed in their homeland and the significant challenges they will face once they arrive here – will likely resemble the Smaisem family’s unfolding story.
Khaled Smaisem, now 46, was working for an independent television station that backed the revolutionaries over Assad.
Three months after the uprising, Smaisem discovered that his phone calls were being recorded. He was reporting on a schoolteacher who was abducted, and nuggets from a conversation he had with the teacher’s parents ended up on the official state-sponsored television channel, he said.
Three days later, he said, he found out he had been accused of terrorism.
Smaisem left almost immediately after he heard about the charges against him. He fled on foot over the mountains into Lebanon with the help of two smugglers, he said.
He made it to the home of a friend of a relative. Fadia, pregnant with Hammada at the time, took her three daughters away from their home in Damascus to stay with her extended family in northern Syria.
Her relatives were anxious for her to leave. “They were afraid I’d bring the heat to their house. It was a time of abductions,” she said.
So she, too, set out for Lebanon, via a legal border checkpoint. “At the border, you show your ID. It’s stamped on the Syrian side,” she said. “I was afraid because I have his name, I might be on a list. Because I’m his wife, maybe they’d even lock me up.”
She had not heard whether Khaled had safely completed his journey. “I was just all the time wondering what had happened to him at the same time.”
Once the family was reunited, Khaled began asking almost right away about how to get to the United States.
It took two years before they found out they had been accepted for resettlement.
Later, Smaisem would hear that some of his former colleagues had been abducted and never heard from again. Others had been tortured to death in jail, he said.
Fadia shakes her head. “We escaped before that happened.”
The United States takes in a set number of refugees – 70,000 a year – no matter what troubled part of the world they come from.
Candidates for resettlement are nominated by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, then interviewed by State Department officials. The rigorous process involves a background check, review of any documents the refugees can provide to prove their lives are at risk and numerous interviews to make sure the refugees’ accounts of their hardships remain consistent.
“Their stories have to hold water. They can’t be dishonest or criminals or would-be terrorists,” said Anne Richard, the assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration.
In the Smaisems’ case, State Department spokesman Daniel Langenkamp said that the specific threat against Khaled, as well as the fact that the family had two teenage daughters in an environment known for its sexual-assault hazard, may have contributed to moving them up the list.
Richard said that 105 Syrians were resettled in the United States in fiscal 2014. In fiscal 2015, which began on Oct 1, 112 have arrived.
As of mid-December 9,972 Syrians had been nominated by the UN office and begun the process of applying for US resettlement, Richard said. She said nearly all likely will be accepted within the next two years.
Once refugees arrive, they are assigned to a private organisation that partners with the State Department to get the families settled. In the case of the Smaisems, it was Catholic Charities, the largest such group.
Refugees receive US government stipends for up to three months, and federal grant programs help states support them for longer. But the money quickly tapers off.
“This is not a luxurious programme. This is very challenging,” Richard said. “It’s kind of run on a shoestring budget.”
Khaled is keenly aware of that. His family’s initial cash aid has ended. According to Derek Maxfield, the associate director of Catholic Charities of DC, the family is receiving food stamps, which will end after they have been in the country for eight months; local government cash assistance that amounts to $200 to $300 per month; and $1,000 monthly per family member through a Catholic Charities programme.
That large Catholic Charities stipend, which will end after about four months, is predicated on the family’s efforts to become self-sufficient. Smaisem has been looking for work, though he says that his lack of English hampers him.
He failed his driver’s license test. He took it in English – he was too proud to ask for a translated version. For a man whose livelihood and sense of self was based on his job as a communicator, starting anew in a place where he cannot speak the language is deeply disorienting.
He said he hopes to learn enough English to become a journalist again. But for now he is scared that he will not be able to afford the rent, $1,700 a month, on the apartment that Catholic Charities picked out for the family.
“I’m looking for jobs now in any field. Anything. I’m not picky,” he said. “It’s scary. This is an expensive area.”
Fadia said she can’t imagine working yet, even though her caseworker told her that her profession in Damascus – she owned a hair salon – would make her employable in American salons. She said she wants to start as a volunteer, maybe in a school or nursing home, so she can learn English.
She is impressed by Americans she has encountered so far, even if she cannot understand them.
“People smile at you on the streets for nothing. Syrians are kind of bitter-faced,” she said.
She thinks her daughters will benefit from this new life in America. Women here are able to speak their minds more than in Syria, she said.
The teenage girls said they are delighted to be ninth-graders at TC Williams High School.
“The difference is, in Lebanon the girls talk together, and the boys talk together. But here, everyone talks together,” Lidya said.
She said she is making friends and enjoying the freedom to hang out without fearing abduction or harassment. “I can wear what I want to wear,” she said. “You can go out on the streets by yourself and go buy stuff.”
She and her sister have picked up English phrases rapidly and keep in touch with their old friends back in Syria via Facebook.
“I miss it sometimes, but I’m happy,” Lidya said.
Enana, perched on the couch in new skinny jeans, interjected in decisive English, “I do not miss it.”