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For refugees in the U.S., politics is a luxury

By Kathryn Karnaze, Medill, Immigrant Connect

As a widow with four kids, Amal faces extreme financial, emotional, and physical stress. She and her kids, all under the age of fifteen, have been living in Skokie, a Chicago suburb, for the past seven months. Previously, the family lived in basements in underground Syria to avoid the bombings.

They came as refugees to the U.S., where mentors from the First Congregation Church of Crystal Lake, who volunteer with Refugee One, were waiting to welcome them. Amal’s husband, their oldest son and both her parents, however, were not a part of Amal’s long journey from Syria to Jordan and finally to the United States. The bombings Amal tried so desperately to avoid and protect her family from took four of the most important people in the world from her.

In Jordan, Amal managed to find an apartment for her surviving family but with limited job opportunities and no access to education for her kids, she knew it wasn’t a long term fix.

Now living in a furnished apartment in Skokie, Amal works a couple of minimum wage jobs in order to pay rent and send her kids to school. This new start for Amal and every other Syrian refugee with similar experiences is saturated with tragedy and numbing memories.

Watch the Medill video interview with Suzanne Sahloul, founder of the Syrian Community Network. 

Amal and her family arrived in the U.S.at only three months before Donald Trump was elected President. She knows little of the political drama that put him in office.

“I just remember talking to her about Trump and I wanted her to know that I don’t like him,” says Jill McCutcheon, a therapist and one of Amal’s mentor with RefugeeOne. “I wanted her to know that not everybody in America was like that.”

Amal’s lack of awareness surprised McCutcheon at first. “She said: ‘we don’t watch the news,” McCutcheon says. “‘I don’t want my kids to watch the news. I don’t want them to see war.’

“As a therapist, I think it’s really smart of her not to not deal with that. Trump is no big deal compared to what they’ve come from.”

Even refugees who haven’t necessarily lost family members to bombings, like Amal has, often get separated from them in the refugee assignment process.

Galya Ben-Arieh, founding Director of the Center for Forced Migration Studies at Northwestern University’s Buffet Institute, says Amal’s patterns are familiar to her. Ben-Arieh works with refugees like Amal every day. She too has noticed how most refugees are too busy to watch news and keep up with politics because they’re too focused on staying connected with their families at home.

“They don’t have time right now for politics and they don’t have time or spend money to pay for TV service,” Ben-Arieh says. “People who are here for a longer time, they’re connected, but the first thing you want to do is connect the families. Most often, you’re a broken extended family.”

Saffa Khan, a member of Sirat Chicago, which works with refugees and immigrants to build a community of individuals, neighborhoods, and congregations, believes that despite the lack of attention that many refugees pay to the news, the rhetoric and some of the policies the new White House team is building plays some role in their feelings about resettlement, especially as it relates to family members trying to join them.

Family members are frequently split up during the refugee resettlement process because, according to the American Immigration Council, relatives seeking refugee status to come to the U.S. is a third priority for the Refugee Admissions Program. The top two priorities are refugees “for whom no other durable solution exists” and groups of “special concern.” Considering President Trump’s announced intention to completely ban Syrian refugees if not severely decrease their admission, third priority refugees don’t seem likely to reach the United States any time soon.

“There’s a sense of, you know, a sort of fear or different feelings coming from the refugees now,” Khan says. “They find it more difficult to stay in touch with people at home where there are 30 others trying to get their family to come, that may and may not be a possibility now.”

Once refugees get to the United States, they are legal residents and don’t face risks of deportation, at least not with the way the laws have been enforced until now. After one year of refugee status in the U.S., the person can apply for a green card, which signifies permanent legal residency, and then four years with a green card can lead to full citizenship – including the right to vote. Many people assume a refugee’s main concern is staying in the United States when it’s often how and when they’ll see their family members again.

The separation from family, following the trauma that brought on their refugee status in the first place, can lead to anxiety and fear so extreme that according to the Department of Applied Psychology at New York University, it can be more emotionally scarring than the past traumatic memories.


Watch the Searching for Syria video [Credit: UNHCR in partnership with Google]

“I think primarily what will affect them is if they have family or friends that are still in Syria,” says Marina Rioux, President of Partnership for the Advancement of Refugee Rights (PARR). “Those people might have a much harder time joining them in the U.S. so that is a big frustration.”

A study by Germany’s chamber of psychotherapists reported that half of the Syrian refugees who left Germany experience psychological distress due to trauma. Leaving their home permanently creates long-term mental health issues for refugees despite no longer being surrounded by the violence they escaped. The study found that “more than 70 percent had witnessed violence and that about 50 percent were victims of violence themselves,”

The study found also that about half of adult refugees had “vivid flashbacks” or “nightmares” about the violence or traumatic event they experienced. Dr. Priscilla Daas-Brailsford, an international psychologist and trauma specialist at Georgetown University, told the Huffington Post that physical recovery is the focus during the resettlement process so mental health recovery is often an afterthought.

Aside from the emotional toll and potential mental health issues that relocation entails, refugees also have the social pressure of learning a new language, finding a job, and fitting in culturally.

“It’s just very difficult to function if you don’t speak English in the U.S.,” says Rioux. “I think both from going grocery shopping to communicating with your children’s teachers to any employment opportunities, really. If you don’t speak English your employment opportunities are very limited, generally minimum wage, not much room for advancement. So even if people are professionals like in Syria or whatever countries they come from, they aren’t going be able to get work in the field they specialize in unless they speak English.”

Refugee aid is limited. Organizations like RefugeeOne and the Syrian Community Network provide at most up to six months of help. With limited external help, a language barrier, and the everyday struggles of trying to pay bills or understand the mailing system enough to know what bills they have to pay, says Rioux, most aspects of life in America are a recurring stress for refugees.

“People have been through war – they’ve been through incredibly harsh experiences,” says Rioux. “And I’m not sure how much mental health care is available.”

“You come here, you have to learn a new language, you have to learn new skills, you have to put your children in school, you have to get a job, you have to retain the job, and you’re dealing with all of this,” says Suzanne Sahloul, founder of the Syrian Community Network. “And you’re dealing with all of this with what happened to you in Syria. You lost everything.”

“So now, after Trump is elected, we’re expecting to see some changes in perceptions about their life here in America,” says Ben-Arieh, whose study of the experiences of refugee resettlement in the U.S. predates Trump’s election.  “Interestingly before, some of our people we interviewed, I thought they would vote for Trump because they saw him as more presidential than Hillary without any connection between what implications it might have for bringing over family members.”

Refugees either supporting Trump or being complacent is nothing new. A Rolling Stone article featured a 30-year-old Syrian refugee named Nedal who arrived in Michigan in June 2015, when the heat of the past presidential election was just beginning.

The reporter describes how when he brought up Trump to Nedal, his answer surprised him. He quoted Nedal saying, “When he [first] start talking about Muslims or Syrians, I’m afraid. But after that, I think a lot about it. I see that Trump never bad as Bashar Assad. He never kill me. And he never kill my kids. He talking. Okay. This is not my problem. The people need him. After four years, we can look about. Maybe he make the United States more up. I don’t know. He’s a businessman, and he’s smart. Maybe now we’ll get good job for everybody.”

In her work on voter registration, Ben-Arieh discovered how in 2004, more immigrants than seh expected reported that they planned to vote for George Bush.

“Some populations are coming from their own kind of understanding of who should govern and how governments should be, they’re not liberal necessarily,” says Ben-Arieh. “They’re not voting their status.”

The ability to vote isn’t Amal’s main priority. She faces the challenges of everyday life in the U.S. while suffering emotionally after her experiences in the Syrian Civil War and the loss of her husband, parents, and child. Amal isn’t waiting to be reunited with family members, like many other Syrian refugees are, but she is waiting to live a normal life. She’s four and a half years away from citizenship and an immeasurable amount of time away from feeling comfortable in the United States.

“The kind of violence they’ve come from is so much worse than even the worst scenario we can imagine in the United States,” McCutcheon says. “Amal’s talking about paying the bills, having enough money, and being in a country where she doesn’t speak the language. What’s really bothering her is the life and death basics. It’s not the politics.”

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