THE REDEMPTION ISSUE
The week of January 24, 2016

The hopes and fears of Toledo’s Syrian refugees

By Aaron Sankin

One day after the House of Representatives passed legislation meant to make it considerably more difficult for families fleeing Syria’s destructive civil war to come to the United States, and two days after a mortar shell reduced her cousin’s home in Damascus to rubble, Corine Dehabey drove to an airport in Toledo, Ohio, to welcome a family of Syrian refugees to America.

Dehabey was born in Syria and moved to the U.S. as a teenager. She knew only the most basic details about the family she was slated to pick up—just some names and birthdays. She hadn’t even spoken to them on the phone.

Toledo Express Airport isn’t exactly a major international hub, and Dehabey had done this countless times before. She can recognize refugees by the looks on their faces as they walk out of the terminal. The brightly colored luggage tags bearing the logo of the International Organization for Migration, which has coordinated international refugee resettlement efforts since the early 1950s, serve as a dead giveaway.

Approximately once every couple of weeks, Dehabey is the first face to greet a family of new refugees arriving in Toledo. Since May 2014, Dehabey has worked as a resettlement coordinator for the nonprofit US Together, an Ohio-based organization tasked by the federal government with helping refugees acclimate to their new lives in America. US Together welcomes thousands of refugees every year, and Dehabey has helped settle people fleeing from horrific situations in countries spanning the globe, from Vietnam to Burundi.

In recent months, the majority of the people she’s greeted at the airport have been Syrian. “When I start talking to them in Arabic, they ask me where I’m from, and I tell them Syria, they get a big smile on their faces,” she tells the Kernel over the phone. “It’s not just because I’m from Syria and they’re from Syria, but because they know somebody here understands them.”

In the wake of the tragic Paris attacks that claimed the lives of some 130 victims, American politicians have singled out Syrian refugees as a potential threat to the U.S. Republican presidential candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are calling for a halt to all any new Syrian refugees entering the country; in Cruz’s case, he’s calling for only the Muslim ones to be blocked, while the Christians have a chance. Over half the nation’s governors indicated at one point that they would prefer if their states didn’t take any Syrian refugees at all.

Since World War II, the United States has historically accepted a significant percentage of the world’s refugees resettled through official United Nations channels. However, in the Syrian crisis, which has displaced over 12 million people (and 4 million internationally), America has, thus far, brought in fewer than 2,000, as of the end of September. Nevertheless, the discovery of a fake Syrian passport near the dead body of one of the terrorists responsible for the Paris attacks has, quite unexpectedly, turned the question of accepting Syrian immigrants into a war of its own.

Dehabey is right there on the front lines, her phone constantly charged and always nearby, ready to spring into action the moment a new refugee needs help.

• • •

Dehabey initially enrolled at the University of Toledo to study computer science. She was first in her class, but felt unfulfilled. “I was getting the highest grades among everybody,” she says. “But I’m not a computer person, I’m a people person. And I wanted to help.”

She transferred to the school’s College of Health and Human Services and studied to become a social worker, and she spent over a decade at homeless agencies, rising to the position of executive director. In 2000, Dehabey went back to Syria to take care of some family business, but she ended up staying for a decade. She came back to the U.S. for what was supposed to be a relatively short visit, but once war broke out she decided to stay in Toledo.

“When I start talking to them in Arabic, they ask me where I’m from, and I tell them Syria, they get a big smile on their faces.”

When she took the job at US Together, Dehabey had no idea she was going to be spending so much of her time helping resettle people from the country where she was born. Yet Toledo’s place as a hub for Syrian refugees isn’t surprising. Toledo’s Arab-American community, dubbed Little Syria, has been part of the Rust Belt city’s culture for nearly a century and is well-integrated into Toledo’s wider culture.

Even so, acclimating to new lives in a foreign land can be difficult for refugees from any country. “It’s very hard for them,” Dehabey says. “First of all, there’s a culture shock. Second of all, there was the expectation of hearing something about the U.S. while in Syria, and then they come here and the reality is something completely different.”

After US Together learns they’re going to be tasked with resettling a refugee, or family of refugees, the first thing they do start working on securing housing. Finding a place for refugees to live can be difficult. Leases have to be held in the name of the refugees themselves, which often gives landlords pause when they envision their new tenants coming with no job, few connections, and possibly limited ability to speak the language.

US Together has managed to forge relationships with a handful of property owners they can go back to over and again, which has has created small pockets of resettled refugees which have formed into communities—a support system. One group of Syrian refugees has started collecting donations for newcomers. Their new lives in America have given them more than they need to survive, so they put a little something away to help new arrivals get on their feet.

Dehabey picks new refugees up from the airport. She schedules appointments at the Social Security office so they can register for Social Security cards. She takes them to the Department of Job and Family Services to get them signed up for food stamps and the cash benefits the government makes available for refugees. She signs them up for Medicaid and registers them for language and job-training classes. She helps them enroll their kids in school, conducts mock job interviews, and arranges to them to get slots in the cultural orientation classes that are designed to ease their transition into American life.

She’s a guide and and family member, but mostly she’s a chauffeur. “In Toledo, public transportation is not that easy, like it is some other big towns and cities,” she says. “You need a car to get around and do things and find a job. This is the biggest thing for them to adjust to. We’re providing all the transportation.”

“With all my condolences to the French government and people, I know how they feel. If anybody would understand what happened and how the victims’ families feel, it’s us, the Syrians.”

What US Together does in Toledo isn’t unique. The government contracts with nonprofits across the country to provide similar resettlement services. “We do a lot here in Toledo because most of the families we get here, especially the Syrians, they don’t have anybody here—no friends, no families. So it seems like we’re doing all the transporting for them, all the work. We are their families. Our phone is on the whole time, even at night, in case of emergencies.”

Syrian refugees have a lot of concerns: They want to get their kids, whose educations have often been disrupted by war, back in school. They want to make friends. But mainly, they want to work. Typically Syrian refugees have some education—generally having completed high school and gone through some college. Most have experience in trades like carpentry or construction.

One patriarch, standing in line to pick up the rental insurance necessary to move into his new apartment shortly after getting off the plane, kept saying to Dehabey over and over again, “I want to work, I want to work, I want to work.”

He spent three years in Jordan after fleeing Syria, first in a refugee camp and then in a cramped two-bedroom apartment shared with three other families. The Jordanian government doesn’t allow refugees to work legally, and he saw his twin brother deported to Turkey for violating the rule. He was understandably antsy.

Dehabey chuckled and told the man to give it time. He had a full-time job within two months.

“Some of them, when they were asked many times about how they felt and what their expectations were, all of them said they expected worse treatment from people in the United States,” she says. “But then they found out that people are very hospitable and happy to have them here. Complete strangers would smile to them on the street.”

Over the last couple of months, as Syrian refugees have become public enemy No. 1, these largely sunny dispositions have started to cloud. They’re not concerned about getting deported, Dehabey reports, but there are real fears that have started to permeate Toledo’s close-knit Syrian refugee community.

The man whose twin brother was deported from Jordan to Turkey worries they’ll never be reunited, Dehabey says. Another family worries that xenophobic rhetoric now permeating the culture will incite some unstable person to physically assault them. They all worry.

• • •

The process of being granted refugee status starts long before Syrian families see Dehabey waiting for them at Toledo’s small airport.

The process first involves applying for asylum through the United Nations Commission for Refugees, based on the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention. If the applicant is someone who, according to the language of the convention, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country,” they will then get referred for settlement in a country such as the United States.

“We opened our homes, we opened our schools, we never put anybody in tents. Now, the Syrians are refugees, and it’s hard on them.”

Applicants are then subjected to an intensive series of interviews from American officials. Each migrant needs the explicit approval of the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It’s a process that typically takes up to two years, but in the case of Syrian refuges, it can stretch on for far longer due to heightened scrutiny.

“Refugees are already more thoroughly vetted and screened than any other visitor to the United States,” Melanie Nezer, vice president for policy and advocacy at HIAS, a refugee assistance group that works with US Together tells the Kernel in a statement. Nezer says “all governors” who support blocking Syrian refugees in their states or otherwise creating further barriers for their arrival “should be doing their part to continue our country’s long legacy as a leader in refugee protection and a beacon of hope for persecuted peoples, not shutting the door on those most in need of safe haven.”

Nevertheless, the fallout from the Paris attacks has provoked fear of “Them,” the unknown characters in our midst. The ability of Trump to find at least temporary political success running on a platform equally skeptical of legal and undocumented immigrants indicates that much of the country is a nativist mood.

The recent rhetoric stings Dehabey particularly hard.

“Personally, I’m really saddened about the whole thing. I don’t think their comments were fair. We can’t persecute a whole nation on one incident we don’t have a proof the Syrian people did,” she says. “With all my condolences to the French government and people, I know how they feel. If anybody would understand what happened and how the victims’ families feel, it’s us, the Syrians. We lived what they experienced. We still live in it. For five years, every day. A million times a day.”

In mid-November, Dehabey reveals with a heavy sigh, a bomb blast leveled her cousin’s home in Syria. Luckily, no one was killed, but the war has left her with a constant fear that, at any minute, her extended family could be decimated. It’s a fear that everyone in Syria’s rapidly expanding diaspora live with on a daily basis. Now, in addition to that, as well as being forced to uproot their lives to the other side of the planet, they’re being made the scapegoat for the actions of the very people who drove many of them away in the first place.

“I’m going to speak on behalf of the Syrians, because I know how they feel and I know what they think,” Dehabey says. “They are not so happy to have refugee next to their name. Syria was well-known for welcoming refugees. We treated them with dignity. We opened our homes, we opened our schools, we never put anybody in tents. Now, the Syrians are refugees, and it’s hard on them. And then they are labeled terrorists. It’s very sad and disappointing.”

After picking up the newest arrivals one Friday night in late November, Dehabey noticed the mother fighting tears. She had heard about the recent animosity directed against people like her family. She has three daughters in Jordan, who have applied for refugee status but have yet to have it officially granted by the United States government. She worried her family would be permanently separated.

Dehabey managed to calm her down as she drove them to the home of another Syrian refugee, from the same city in Syria, who had agreed to let them stay for a few days. Dehabey had a difficult time finding a place big enough to accommodate the whole family, with five children in tow. At the last minute, Dehabey found a townhouse that worked perfectly; it just wouldn’t be ready for a few days because it had to be retrofitted with new carpet and flooring.

The family moved in the following Tuesday.

 

A version of this story originally appeared on the Daily Dot on Nov. 26, 2015.

Illustration by Max Fleishman