I’m proud to be Syrian: Syrian refugees in Michigan
Rania Daboul remembers having to call her older brother who was 6,000 miles away from her, anxiety building about her future.
She was stuck in Jordan, taking care of her three younger siblings while her parents were in the United States. There were a lot of times when Daboul felt as if she had no academic future and no possible way to accomplish her dream of becoming a doctor like her brother.
She would call him, unable to actually leave Jordan to join the rest of her family, thinking she had no hope, that it was all over.
After living in Jordan without her parents for two years, Daboul finally received the call from her family that they would be coming to United States, gaining refugee status after two long years, a process that should have only lasted six months.
Daboul still remembers jumping up and down on her bed the whole day. She was moving farther away from her native country of Syria, but she would finally be reunited with her family in yet another new country.
She is now an LSA sophomore, and her family now calls Farmington Hills home ever since fleeing Syria more than six years ago. After members of her family were kidnapped and others received threats, her father’s side of the family decided to flee from Damascus, Syria to Jordan. Like so many others, their journey to the United States was a long and stressful one.
Daboul’s older brother was already attending medical school in the United States when the family fled to Jordan. Once settled in Jordan, her parents decided to visit their eldest son in the United States. Once they were there, her parents decided to apply for visas and request refugee status.
The process was supposed to take six months — Daboul’s parents ended up waiting in the United States for two years without permission to leave the country except for a two-week trip to see their children. Daboul, the eldest of the four children left behind in Jordan, took on the role of cooking, cleaning and, in a general sense, being the parent while waiting for the U.S. government to allow her parents to come back to Jordan and bring them to join the rest of the family in Michigan.
“There were so many times in Jordan I would call my brother and be like, it’s over — I was a really dramatic kid,” Daboul said. “The day we found out we were going to America, I was jumping on the bed the whole day because I finally was able to join my parents and brother.”
In 2011, the Arab Spring saw the end of two long-term administrations, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Syria’s own protests developed into violence after the torture of 15 teenage boys who voiced support of the Arab Spring.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continued an assault on his citizens, detaining hundreds and beginning the civil war known as the Syrian conflict. The Free Syrian Army and the terrorist movement ISIS were born out of the struggle against al-Assad, leading to more than 450,000 killed and 50 percent of the country’s pre-war population displaced.
As of December 2016, there are 4,873,248 refugees from Syria worldwide.
Daboul considers her family lucky since they left so early in the revolution and were able to move to the United States relatively smoothly, leaving before threats became prominent in the country.
Michigan has the second highest population of Syrian refugees, with most residing in Troy and Dearborn. The state has the highest Arab population in the United States, containing 2 percent of the state’s population in 2015.
Tawfik Alazem, director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Detroit, said the group mostly settles refugees in Wayne and Macomb Counties — areas with large Middle-Eastern, Iraqi and Chaldean populations.
“Michigan is a welcoming state and immigration is a really great opportunity to grow our state,” Alazem said. “I truly think diversity is power. Michigan and the specifically Detroit metro area is one of the largest Middle-Eastern populations in the country.”
Patrick McLean, a Syrian American Rescue Network board member, explained many refugees settle in Michigan through the network of past Syrian immigrants — he referred to Dearborn as the “heart of Arab-American culture.”
On Jan. 25, Ann Arbor City Council passed a resolution to protect immigrants from federal investigation — however, the city did not declare itself as a “sanctuary city.” This was in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order on the same day against sanctuary spaces that could potentially lose federal funding.
The attempt at an immigration ban
On Jan. 27 — International Holocaust Remembrance Day — Trump signed an executive order calling for suspended immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries such as Somalia, Yemen and Syria.
Trump’s order in return faced exceeding amounts of backlash, with protests sparking across the country. However, some viewed the immigration halt as a means of protecting the nation.
You can't 'make America great' by eroding the very values that made it that way in the first place — Rep. Debbie Dingell (@RepDebDingell) January 28, 2017
You can't 'make America great' by eroding the very values that made it that way in the first place
— Rep. Debbie Dingell (@RepDebDingell) January 28, 2017
“Without question, what the current president is doing with his executive order is really creating a culture of fear among the refugee population and the broader immigrant population,” McLean said. “It is not going to make us safer — it has the potential to make us less safe, because it will make refugees and immigrant much more reluctant to deal with law enforcement and the broader community. It’s terribly misguided.”
However, McLean found hope in the support he saw throughout the country. On Jan. 29, thousands crowded in the Detroit Metropolitan Airport, chanting “Let them in” and welcoming arrivals.
The ban received mixed reactions on campus. LSA senior Adam Mageed, president of the campus University Muslim Coalition, said in late January the policy ignores refugees whose lives could be in greater danger.
“I think that Americans are incredibly safe and take their safety for granted,” Mageed said. “Security at the cost of heavy discrimination isn’t security.”
Some on the conservative side disagreed, believing the ban to be vital for national security. LSA junior Enrique Zalamea, president of the University’s chapter of College Republicans, said in an earlier interview that it was the government’s duty to uphold security.
“I am a first-generation American, and I love this country, but I would rather have a more secure immigration process in order to reduce the risk of future terrorist threats,” Zalamea said. “It truly bewilders me to see so many people protesting what is essentially a vital step towards proving our national security.”
After the ban was announced, University President Mark Schlissel said he would not turn over students’ immigration information. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, however, backed the order, insisting it was not a Muslim ban but “placing the security of Americans first.”
Gov. Rick Snyder, along with 31 other governors, placed a temporary ban on the entry of Syrian refugees into the state following the terrorist attacks November 2015 in Paris. Snyder’s ban prompted many University faculty and staff to speak out against the governor's actions. In an interview, that November, History Prof. Pamela Ballinger expressed her dismay with the states ban.
“The growing chorus of governors who wish to block resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states is a worrisome, yet sadly predictable, response to the terror attacks in Paris,” Ballinger said. “These governors displace blame onto the literally displaced, victims forced to flee their homes as a result of the same extremist violence that shook Paris last week. Such a view ignores that the U.S. commitment to take Syrian refugees is already low, as well as the fact that the process of refugee vetting in the U.S. is a slow and careful one.”
On Feb. 9, the federal court rejected the appeal for Trump’s travel ban on the basis that there was no evidence of that anyone had committed terrorist acts from the seven countries. Despite Trump’s claims the court had no power on his order, the ban was disabled.
Yet uncertainty still reigns throughout the country — with refugees, immigrants, undocumented individuals and organizations unsure how to shape their futures based on the contentious political climate.
The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants is a national refugee program, federally funded, that addresses the needs of refugees worldwide, supporting a transition to the United States. USCRI attempts to provide refugees with transportation, housing and other necessities in the first 30 to 90 days they are in the country. Other programs include aid in employment and family counseling. They also must have a health screening within the first 30 days of arrival.
Some of the services USCRI provides include: greeting at the airport, bringing to a prepared apartment or house, aid in applying to Social Security, aid in applying to medical benefits, enrolling children in schools, enrolling in ESL schools.
The most common challenge is with transportation and housing. Without credit or jobs, USCRI attempts to aid families by connecting with landlords in the Wayne County area early and often.
“Fortunately, we did build a lot of good relationships with a lot of local landlords, but it is still a challenge to find the right affordable housing for them,” Alazem said. “Also, transportation is a challenging issue. Refugees arrive with no real money to buy a car. But fortunately, there is a bus system in Detroit, but it is not really reliable for new arriving refugees to use immediately.”
In this 90-day span, USCRI attempts to tackle all the needs for day-to-day living. When it is up, USCRI calls on the community outreach and volunteers with transportations, medical appoints and grocery runs.
“We try to get them everything in 90 days,” he said. “And luckily, we have a very good employment rate for refugees: 86 percent within 180 days of refugees are self-sufficient. Now, they might not have a very high paying job at the beginning but we encourage them to not refuse a job opportunity if it does pay minimum wage or little bit more than minimum wage. And in most cases, they understand and they get employment.”
Alazem said the current ambiguous political climate makes the future uncertain for USCRI, but his staff continues its work with excitement.
“We are hopeful in keeping a good agency in capacity and be able to keep providing the best services to refugees,” he said. “But this is what we are concerned about. Refugees are more than, honestly, numbers: these people (need) our assistance. They are running away from terrible violence and this country is a welcoming country. And we should keep our tradition.”
Trying to remain positive, Daboul is thankful her entire immediate family was in the United States when the executive order was signed, so there were no issues getting family members back into the country. However, she still worries about what the future holds for her family and other Syrians.
“It’s not an easy thing to get here and it’s not a simple screening process,” Daboul said. “I don’t think people understand how hard it is to get here. It’s a very obvious humanitarian crisis.”
Syrian American Rescue Network is one of these organizations that families could turn to for settling in Michigan.
Created in 2015, SARN was created by community members aiming to help families in the area. The number of families continued to grow, prompting community members and neighbors to band together to address the needs of the families.
Currently based in Bloomfield Hills, SARN aims to integrate Syrians into broader society as quickly as possible, including language training and providing necessary household items.
McLean, who has 20 years of experience with refugees, said SARN attempts to fill in the gaps left by resettlement agencies on a case-by-case basis. If the initial housing a family received was not adequate, SARN would search for a new home. If a family did not have consistent transportation to medical services, SARN would attempt to organize it.
“We also see ourselves as a connectors, which is even more important,” McLean said. “We help with the services that people need but we also help get people to those services.”
With a large volunteer team, SARN was able to maintain a warehouse full of donated goods and interact with the community through social programs. The Ann Arbor District Library, for example, recently hosted a cultural program.
One of the biggest concerns, McLean explained, can be language services and special and mental health services for children.
“That is a difficult one,” he said. “There is a stigma attached and a lot of the refugees really have been through horrific experiences and without being a medical doctor, I heard it being described as post-traumatic stress disorder. Swimming for your life, running for your life or a lost family member along the route. So people have gone through pretty horrific experiences and some need special needs as result of that.”
For children in particular, SARN provides opportunities through art programs in order to provide them with more positive experiences.
“We also try to let them be kids,” he said. “Just to go run around with other kids.”
One volunteer is Ypsilanti resident Tess Router. Having been interested in aiding refugees after the crisis, Router started teaching English in 2015 and to date, has assisted about 20 people.
Router helps with the administrative side of the SARN as well, working to expand the program from Ann Arbor to Troy with cultural mentorship and social events planning.
“For me, it was pretty difficult in the beginning because I was very inexperienced … I only speak English as my first language,” she said. “So I am going into this with these people who have been through great hardships, very traumatized and trying to teach them English when I can’t speak their language. … It was very intimidating and it did not go well in the beginning, honestly.”
Router said many of the people she worked with had a similar story: They leave for Jordan at night and wait for years to move to the United States.
“There was one family that I was working with at a time,” she said. “Their mother and one of the daughters of the family were killed in an explosion. And the oldest son had to go back into the rubble to get their bodies. And apparently they had this on video and you can see in their eyes, they are not the same.”
With all this, Router believed she learned about human perseverance during her time as a volunteer at SARN and seeing families going to work and settling during the first few months after arriving the in United States.
“These people have been through such hell,” she said. “And yet, they are so resilient. It taught me something about the human spirit.”
LSA junior Haleemah Aqel is the head of the University’s chapter of Books Not Bombs, a national organization asking colleges to support scholarships for Syrian refugees.
The University’s chapter was small when it began in March, but directors at the Karam Foundation, which specifically helps young Syrian refugees, encouraged Aqel to see the project through. Aqel launched the campaign formally in fall 2016. By tabling in Mason Hall and screening films, she did her best to reach out to students about the issue and sign the petition.
“A lot of people know about the Syrian crisis,” she said. “But they don’t know about the specifics about it. Education (crisis) is a big one.”
The education crisis is referring to the 2.1 million K-12 children who are not in school. Books Not Bombs focuses in on college students in particular. Aqel said the aim was to educate refugees who can either return to Syria or stay in the United States and contribute to society.
The admission process was also point of concern for Aqel and other students. Refugees would apply to a university through a similar process as international students, including taking the SAT and sending their transcripts, something difficult in the current state of the country.
“If there are Syrian students who wanted to come directly from Syria to study at Michigan on a scholarship, the SAT is only held in, I think, Damascus,” she said. “And it’s only held a few times a year. And if there is someone from Aleppo and they wanted to take the SAT, they couldn’t make it to Damascus. There is just no way.”
Books Not Bombs is also hoping to work with others on English proficiency for Syrian students through Skype.
McLean explained how many coming into the country have higher education and experience, yet face struggles with the language barrier and lack of U.S. credentials. SARN attempts to help get these credentials recognized or fulfilled for refugees.
He described how a Bosnian doctor came to St. Louis after the Balkan Wars in the early 1990s and had to restart her career.
“She was scrubbing toilets and she was a full medical doctor when she came over here,” he said. “So it took a while to get those credentials and equivalency in the United States.”
As of the end of October, the University had over 1,000 signatures on the Books Not Bombs campaign website. In November, Aqel went to Central Student Government to consider a resolution urging the University to adopt several scholarships for Syrian refugee students.
In January 2017, Aqel created a petition asking Schlissel for a continuation of visas and support for international, undocumented and refugee students. She hopes to push the petition to administrators this semester. Aqel’s plans were to reach out to the administration in order to make the scholarships a reality, hoping to work out the numbers with the University. She hoped to find a private donor to contribute to the scholarship, in order to allow students to have tuition waived.
Public Health student Lilah Khoja works part-time with the Karam Foundation. She thinks the actions taken by the Books Not Bombs campaign is a step in the right direction.
“There are a lot of master’s students and Ph.D. students that have had to interrupt their studies,” Khoja said. “They are in this limbo where they can’t go back to school since they can’t afford it and they can’t get visas to Europe or the U.S. to continue their studies. I think it’d be cool to see the University support these students as well.”
However, following Trump’s executive order, the board of Books Not Bombs wanted to reshape its agenda in order to adjust to the new, quickly changing political climate.
Aqel herself is Palestinian, but wanted to participate in Syrian-based charities in solidarity with those who have helped Palestinian causes in the past.
Another goal of the Books Not Bombs campaign is having universities join the Institute of International Education Syria Consortium, a coalition of universities that have joined together to support higher education for Syrian refugees.
McLean mentioned how many refugees come from a more rural background and lacking education, which creates new barriers in finding employments. Another less known obstacle he discussed was the balance between providing for one’s family and continuing education.
Families recieve a limited amount of money as their settlement, usually based on how many family members there are. McLean estimates rent lasts two or four months.
“That is a real challenge that people with great potential find themselves doing jobs that they could ultimately do better, but feel the need to make money than further their education,” he said.
Lanah Almatroud, a high-school student in Ann Arbor, found herself struggling with the language barrier when she came to the country as a seventh-grader with her parents and two sisters, all living in her uncle’s home.
Almatroud attributed a lot of her success to her parents starting work and English teacher, who voluntarily aided her for hours after class and communicated with her teachers for tests. Because of high interest from seven other classmates, her teacher created an English as a second-language class. Almatroud’s relationship with her ESL teacher continued, even after she became proficient in the language.
Almatroud’s ESL teacher passed away last summer.
“Now I am kind of on my own,” she said. “I am kind of finding this year a little bit more challenging. … He was probably the most helpful teacher I ever had.”
The Michigan Refugee Assistance Program is a student-led organization at the University dedicated to assisting refugees who resettled in the Ann Arbor area. They work to educate and raise awareness about the great displacement crisis and how college students can use their campuses to mitigate the issue.
LSA senior Nicole Khamis, MRAP founder and president, has family ties to areas affected by the crisis and spent a summer in Jordan working with refugees, which prompted her to create MRAP back in Ann Arbor.
“While living in Jordan and working with refugees, I saw from afar the extremely politicized rhetoric around refugees during the election, and witnessed truly how different my experience was working with refugees from what people in the states had been saying about refugees,” Khamis wrote in an email to the Daily. “This is when I knew that we needed an organization on campus that shed light on who refugees were and provide a space for humanizing them.”
MRAP was the first organization of its kind to offer direct support in the refugee crisis. Khamis said MRAP received a huge amount of interest from students.
“People want to help, they want to assist refugees in any way they can, and they want to be educated to push back against the rampant xenophobia and racism we are currently witnessing,” Khamis wrote. “The reception MRAP has received from the University community, which has been incredible, exemplifies that students do think about this issue … However, with MRAP, students are realizing that Syria and Iraq aren’t far away—indeed, there are about 1,000 recently resettled families from those areas in Ann Arbor alone- and we can use our resources as students to assist these individuals in navigating a new life in a foreign place.”
Khoja believes the work done by Books Not Bombs and MRAP are important, tangible efforts for helping refugees rather than simply feeling sorry for refugees after seeing their portrayal in the media — a portrayal Syrians have no control over.
“Pity doesn’t go anywhere; sympathy only gets you so far,” Khoja said. “You need actual empathy, actual understanding and humanizing images. The right to portrayal should be a fundamental human right and I think that applies to so much more than just Syrian refugees, but to most marginalized groups in the world.”
Similar to Khoja, Daboul doesn’t like the constant pity for Syrian refugees that feeds into the typical American view of a Syrian.
“I try to say I’m a refugee as frequently as possible,” Daboul said. “I’m proud to be Syrian. A person’s image of what a Syrian would look like is in a refugee camp, poor and uneducated. I don’t really fit that necessarily… What bothers me the most is that we are always viewed with pity.”
Almatroud considers herself a part of Michigan and wishes to stay in the United States to study and work while also still missing her home in Syria. But she considers visiting an impossibility with Trump’s order and the current political climate.
“(My sisters and I say): ‘We just want to go back’ and we miss everything, our house, our friends, our family,” she said, explaining she still keeps in touch her with old friends.
Almatroud faces her own hesitance over where is considered home. While her young sister dresses and acts more American, Almatroud says she feels more Syrian.
“I don’t think I would wish to go back and live (in Syria),” she said. “I would think (Michigan) is home. I am not sure. I am not sure. But like, I wouldn’t want to go and live back there even though I love there more than here. It’s kind of weird.”