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October 21, 2017
'I had to flee for my life' – The reality of being a Syrian refugee
Omar al-Muqdad. Courtesy of Omar al-Muqdad.
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.- Omar al-Muqdad wanted to help the Iraqi refugees who were displaced from their homes in 2004. He volunteered to help with refugee resettlement, aiding those who came in finding housing, clothing and schools in Syria, where he lived.

Little did he know that just a few years later, he himself would be a refugee fleeing civil war in his own country.

“I had to flee for my life,” Omar told CNA. Six years ago, the Syrian journalist ran away from security forces who were threatening him. His crime? Reporting on the early days of what would come to be the Syrian Civil War.

First, he found refuge in Turkey. Then, once his refugee claim was processed, he found permanent resettlement in the United States.

March 15 marked the sixth anniversary of the start of the Syrian Civil War. What began as peaceful demonstrations protesting ongoing human rights abuses and suppression of free speech erupted into a war that has killed hundreds of thousands and forced millions from their homes.

Six years later, an end to the violence is nowhere in sight. The majority of Syria’s population has been displaced. New threats that have grown out of the situation – most prominently ISIS – have only added to the chaos. Together with other conflicts and famines in Somalia, Afghanistan, the Central African Republic and elsewhere, the world is now facing the largest refugee crisis since World War II.

Syria back then was considered a safe country.

For refugees like Omar, leaving home wasn’t something they had wanted or were prepared for: it was a choice between life and death.

Now 37 years old, and a resident of the United States for five years, Omar hopes Americans can come to understand some of what he experienced.

“Refugees are not your enemy,” he said. “They don’t know they are coming to the US,” he added, explaining that often refugees have little choice in where they are sent once they flee home. Instead, he urged compassion and acceptance as “a human responsibility as Americans.”

Maggie Holmesheroan, program manager for Catholic Relief Services’ operations in Jordan, agreed. “These are normal people like you and me,” she said.

“They lived normal lives before the conflict. They are now in a position where they’ve lost everything. Frankly, they’ve displayed incredible resilience in the face of a terrible situation.”

“Sometimes the instinct is to feel that they’re very different from us,” she continued, “but we should definitely find our common humanity.”

The seeds of a crisis

Before March 2011, Syria and its people looked very different from the images of rubble and terrified citizens associated with the country today.

Holmesheroan told CNA that before the war, the Syrian people were very similar in many ways to Americans, in terms of education, industry and social class.  

“They had a very highly educated population – very diversified in terms of industry,” she said, noting that in her work, she regularly encounters refugees who were former government bureaucrats, blue collar workers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and nurses. “It’s really a representative range, just like we have here in the United States,” she said.

In fact, less than 15 years ago, some of the areas most damaged by airstrikes and bombing raids were the very places refugees from other conflicts were sent for safety and a new life.  

“Syria back then was considered a safe country,” explained Omar.

However, many people – including Omar – were unsatisfied with the ruling Assad family’s policies. The family and its Ba’ath party had held control of the country since 1971. Critics from a range of religious sects and ethnic backgrounds have protested against both former president Hafez al-Assad and his son and current president, Bashar al-Assad for their anti-democratic policies and denial of basic human rights like freedom of speech and assembly. In addition, the Assad family has drawn strong opposition from Islamist movements who objected to various aspects of the family’s rule.

I had to start over from nothing.

In his work as a journalist, particularly reporting on economic and human rights struggles in the south of Syria, Omar ran into opposition from the government. “The Syrian authorities don’t generally tolerate any form of criticism against the government and institutions,” he said. “They consider that an act of treason if you dare to say something against the government or you ask for reforms.”

For reporting on these issues, as well as starting up a private magazine not controlled by the State, Omar was apprehended by Syrian security forces. After questioning and a military trial, he was sentenced to three years in a military prison. “They did not like what I was writing there and they considered it an act of treason against the state,” he said.  

By March 2011, Omar had been released from prison and was working again as an undercover journalist, when protests began. Many of these demonstrations were initially focused on the government’s treatment of underage student protesters in the southern city of Daraa, and other political prisoners. Socioeconomic inequality, intense droughts and food shortages also heightened the tensions within Syria in the months leading up to the start of the conflict.

On March 15, 2011, protesters filled the streets of Damascus to demand the release of political prisoners and other human rights reforms. Within a few days, more and more demonstrators started gathering to demand broader democratic and human rights reforms. When the Syrian government cracked down in response to the initial protests, the demonstrations only grew stronger, bolstered by the success of pro-democracy movements elsewhere in the Middle East.

“The peaceful demonstration started taking over the streets, and people started demanding freedom,” Omar recalled. “I was covering this event.” But then he realized that he was once again being followed by Syrian security forces.

“I knew that if they could catch me, that would be the end.” Omar fled to Turkey.

Meanwhile, tensions continued to escalate in Syria and various opposition groups solidified against the Assad regime. Both government and opposition forces began to take up arms against one another as the conflict grew. By early 2017, it was estimated that at least 400,000 Syrians had been killed, at least 6.3 million displaced internally, and some 5 million had fled the country as refugees.

Close to home – yet far from it

When Omar fled to Turkey as a refugee, he registered immediately with the U.N. Human High Commissioner for Refugees. While his claim was being processed, he was able to work as a freelance journalist for CNN and other news outlets covering the war.

At the same time, other refugees from Syria started to leave, pouring into neighboring countries. More than 1 million refugees have fled to Jordan, and at least 2.2 million are now residing in Lebanon. This has placed considerable strain on the countries, which previously had populations of just 6 million and 4 million, respectively.

In some areas, refugees have moved into camps administered by various aid agencies. In other areas, like Jordan, the majority of refugees live in cities and urban areas. Still others take refuge in unofficial settlements.

Maggie Holmesheroan and her colleagues at Catholic Relief Services work with refugees who are trying to integrate in urban areas of Jordan. Refugees here face a number of challenges just getting by from day to day. “They’re trying to live life in a city, but basically, with no resources,” she said.

Many of the refugees fled violence at a moment’s notice with nothing but the clothes on their backs. In many cases, families were split up, and the men were often forced to stay behind. In most cases, documents, identification, birth certificates, diplomas, and bank cards were left behind.

When the refugees reach a safe place and apply for refugee status, they are generally not allowed to work, and must live off the allotment granted by the United Nations. Often, that is not enough to buy food and clothing, pay rent, cover medical expenses and send their children to school.

“You don’t have access to any of your resources, even if you were diligent and saved up money,” Holmesheroan said. “All those safety nets are gone for people. So they’re just surviving on whatever help they can get from a wide variety of organizations that are here.”

The majority of Syria’s population has been displaced.

In Jordan, CRS works with Caritas Jordan and Caritas Internationalis to provide refugees with aid in finding a livelihood, healthcare, non-food humanitarian support, psychological and social services, rent and cash subsidies to help make ends meet.

Recently, the situation in Jordan has improved slightly for some refugees, due to the country’s policy change allowing refugees to seek work permits in the garment manufacturing, agriculture, domestic work and construction industries. However the hundreds of thousands of refugees without those skills – for example, those who previously worked in the fields of teaching or medicine – still don’t have employment opportunities.

“They’re in limbo,” Holmesheroan said, with a very long wait ahead of them: the average refugee stays displaced for 17 years. Many of the refugees wish to return home, but there is no end in sight to the wars in Syria or Iraq.

“So, how do you handle the day-to-day stress of living in a situation where you’re in extreme poverty, you don’t have access to the resources that you need to do basic life, and then on top of that, you have no idea when anything might change?”

Until the conflict is resolved, the countries and agencies helping aid the millions of war refugees need adequate support and funding, Holmesheroan said. “We need to have a conversation about our fair share.”

She also stressed the importance of realizing that refugees are victims of violence. “The people who have run away from this war are running for their lives and are running away from extremism,” she said. “They are largely minorities and moderates who are running away from the violence. They don’t want to live in a country of extremists any more than we do.”

Permanent refuge

After a year of waiting in Turkey, Omar made it through the immigration process. Although the wait was long, he believes he “was one of the lucky ones” – the average waiting time for most refugees applying for resettlement is between 18 and 24 months. Omar added that he knows several people who have waited over three or even five years to be resettled.

In this time, Omar underwent interviews and waited for his status to be processed. Eventually his case was picked up by the International Catholic Migration Commission, which helped link his case with his new home country – the United States. Originally, Omar al-Muqdad expected to be sent to Canada or a different country for resettlement, so the news was a surprise. “I didn’t know I would be sent to the United States,” he said.

After he was referred to the United States, Omar underwent what he described as “extreme vetting,” consisting of interviews, health screenings and numerous background checks. In addition to the rigorous 20-step vetting process for those whose applications are initially accepted, Syrian refugees face further screening review from U.S. Immigration Services.

After passing all of these steps, Omar finally made it to the United States. “I was sent to Northwest Arkansas, to a small town called Fayetteville, where I started my life here.”

Ashley Feasley, director of policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services, described to CNA the process of helping to resettle refugees in communities like Fayetteville around the country.

The bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services is one of nine private agencies that oversee all the resettlement of refugees in the United States. For the last five years, the agency has placed between a quarter and a third of all refugees who come to the U.S.

After refugees are placed with a community, the local office – typically run through Catholic Charities or another Catholic organization – is responsible for welcoming them and providing or linking them with basic services, such as housing, food, and medical care while they acclimate to the United States. Churches and other groups help them learn English, find employment, and integrate into their new community.

The average refugee stays displaced for 17 years.

This year, Trump’s executive order – if it withstands scrutiny by the courts – is expected to reduce the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. from 85,000 to at most 50,000. The administration’s 120-day freeze on all refugee admissions will also impact total refugee numbers, as well as the bishops’ ability to process and place them, due to a lack of reimbursements and personnel losses during the freeze.

Feasley objected to these policies. “There are so many vulnerable individuals who have been in the pipeline starting the process, who really are seeking refuge,” she told CNA. “This is obviously going to prevent them from doing that here in the United States.”

“In some cases, it really is going to prevent family reunification.”

Feasley also noted that in her experience, many refugees have been “benefits not only to their parishes, but to their communities.” She pointed to a number of former refugees who are now social workers in Catholic Charities and resettlement offices as an example.

Within the community of Syrian refugees specifically, she noted that the bishops have “seen great heartbreak but also great resiliency.” Most of them have fled extreme circumstances, and yet built stable lives here in the United States.

In this regard, she praised the Trump administration’s second executive order for removing the ban on Syrian refugees that was found in the initial order. “I think that it’s very important to welcome all nationalities,” she said.

Settling in

When he was first assigned to resettle in Arkansas, Omar said he was concerned because of stereotypes he had heard about the South being unwelcoming to newcomers. Fortunately, he learned that that was a misconception.

“My experience there was really incredible. People there were very warm,” Omar said, adding that in his first few weeks in Fayetteville, he was welcomed into the community, and even into one of the local family's homes. “Back then there wasn’t ISIS…So, people were really open to helping refugees.”  

Surrounded by warmth and welcomed into the community, Omar said that he “didn’t really feel alone.” A key part of the friendly atmosphere were the parish and Church agencies who helped with his resettlement. “I’m still grateful for them,” he said.

Eventually, Omar moved to the Washington, D.C. area in order to resume his career as a journalist. That path has not been easy.

“I had to start over from nothing,” he said. Although he already had a college degree in political science from Damascus University, he left his diploma at home when he fled Syria. When he came to the U.S., he had to start college over again.

Starting from scratch in his 30s was difficult. Still, in between reporting for a variety of national newspapers, Omar is on track to complete his studies soon. He plans on pursuing a Master’s degree next.

The people who have run away from this war are running for their lives.

Obaida Omar, a community supervisor and health case manager at the Catholic Family House in Rochester, NY, described the challenges of leaving one’s entire life behind and trying to start over.

She herself fled as a refugee from Afghanistan 25 years ago. Later, she became a social worker. “I just love helping refugees,” she told CNA. “They’re really good people. They’re very strong.”

Today, she aids people from Syria as well as other countries. Obstacles abound. Few of her clients have family or friends in the area, and it can take time to settle into a new community. Interpreters are provided as refugees learn the language of their new home, but building trust with the interpreter takes time.

Her clients also face a range of medical issues from the violence they have experienced. Some have lost limbs in war. Others are wheelchair bound or suffer from PTSD and other mental health challenges. And still others have various levels of hearing loss, creating an extra layer of difficulties when trying to arrange for an interpreter.

CNA attempted to contact a number of dioceses, Catholic Charities offices and relief agencies to talk to other Middle Eastern refugees. Many refugee families – both in the United States and abroad – declined to be interviewed, fearing discrimination or negative repercussions of being identified in print as a refugee or a Middle Easterner.

Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan, located in the Archdiocese of Detroit, was one of several agencies that cited recent changes in government policy as causing personnel cuts, which meant that remaining staff were unable to contact families due to other increased responsibilities.

Resettling more than 700 refugees in 2016 alone, Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan is one of the largest resettlement projects in the United States. The area has a significant existing Middle Eastern population.

Between 2014 and late 2016, the overwhelming majority of the refugees directed to the area were Chaldean Catholics from Iraq – most of whom were fleeing persecution at the hands of ISIS. In late 2016, the office experienced a surge of Syrian refugees coming into the area.

However, the rapid decline in refugee admissions for 2017 has resulted in a budget shortfall of $131,000, the agency said. Bill Blaul, institutional advancement director, told CNA that the group was “hanging onto our absolute core in the hope that we can start relocating refugees here again.”

And other agencies around the country are facing similar budget constraints. Many staff members have been laid off. In some cases, vital programs will be able to continue for a few more months.

Omar al-Muqdad is one of the lucky ones. While other refugees are still waiting to hear if they will be accepted by a host country, he is ready to make his residence in the U.S. permanent.

“I just filed my citizenship application and America is my new home,” he said. He added that he felt he owed it to the Arkansas community who took him in “to pay the community back for the kindness that they showed to me when I first came here.”

“I’m trying, but it’s not easy,” he said of his journey so far. “I’m trying to do my best here.”

This article was originally published on CNA March 15, 2017.