Strangers in a strange land: Refugees face hurdles to American dream

Atlanta CNN  — 

Ahmad dodged bullets in Syria. Bushra received death threats in Iraq. Awino walked a thousand miles to flee civil war in Sudan.

They each found a new home in the United States. Strangers in a strange land, they started new lives with elation, the dates of their arrival indelible in their minds.

“We are safe, finally,” says Ahmad, who arrived earlier this year. “We are happy to be here.”

It is a sentiment expressed by almost every refugee upon reaching America. Burdens lift as the horrors of their homelands are left far behind.

But new burdens can arise in their new nation.

This country expects new arrivals to become self-sufficient within a few months, says Alaa Naji, life skills coordinator at the Refugee Women’s Network in Atlanta.

The system is designed for healthy, hard-working people, she says. But the reality is that many refugees arrive with physical and psychological traumas, problems that often are chronic and require the attention of specialists.

It’s difficult enough these days for Americans to reach the middle class. How, Naji asks, are refugees expected to make it?

Their ordeal is personal for her. She, too, came to America as a refugee after her husband was killed early in the Iraq war and she was left widowed with two young children to raise.

“Do you know how many families tell me they want to go back home and face death?” she asks.

A refugee’s road to recovery can be long and difficult. On this World Refugee Day, Ahmad, Bushra and Awino share their tales, each shaped by a unique and harrowing experience – and the passage of time.

Ahmad, 2016: ‘Life here is hard’

Five years into Syria’s bloody civil war, Ahmad’s story sadly sounds familiar. The 38-year-old salesman for an electrical company abandoned his Damascus home when fighting erupted. He escaped sniper fire; witnessed executions.

“It was horrifying,” he says in a muted voice. “People were running everywhere.”

(Ahmad, like Bushra and her family, did not want to be identified by their surnames for fear of reprisals against relatives back home.)

Ahmad, his wife and four children took refuge in their hometown of Daraa, south of Damascus. But when the conflict engulfed that city as well, they managed to escape to Jordan.

Ahmad sought safety his hometown of Daraa. But the war caught up with him there, too.

There was a time when Ahmad harbored reservations about resettling in America.

“It was so far away from home,” he says through an interpreter. “And I don’t speak English. But I thought life will be better for me here.”

He aspires to one day owning a house with a garden and playground for his kids, of seeing his four children go to college. It’s the American way, and Ahmad allows himself to dream.

A federally contracted resettlement agency made arrangements for Ahmad’s arrival on March 8 and placed him in an apartment complex in Clarkston, a small town east of Atlanta that has been an immigrant magnet for the past two decades.

The federal government mandates a one-time $1,125 grant for each refugee to help secure housing and basic needs in their first 90 days. Each state has its own resettlement rules; in Georgia, refugees generally qualify for food and medical assistance for eight months. Low-income refugees may qualify for further assistance, based on their needs.

One thing is made clear to everyone in Ahmad’s position: it’s crucial to get a job.

Ahmad’s rent is $1,075 a month. He worries the apartment will become unaffordable.

“I know I came to an unclear future.”

He is anxious to enroll in English classes but is still waiting to be placed in one. Without language skills, it will be hard to work.

“I know I will have a low-paying job. I will do anything.”

His one consolation is that his son is 18 and speaks a smattering of English. He, too, can help support the family, Ahmad says.

Sometimes, he hears from other Syrian families seeking refuge. They ask him: “Should we come to America?”

Ahmad’s response is always “yes.” But he tells them America is not what they imagine as they wait their turn in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey. There is little assistance for people here, he tells them. America will not solve all their problems.

“Life here is hard.”

Bushra, 2008: ‘I am still struggling’

Bushra, 55, and her husband, Mazin, had made a life for themselves in Baghdad. She was a public health manager; he was a cardiac surgeon and director of the Iraqi Center for Heart Disease. The eldest of their three children was studying at Al-Mustansirya University.

“We had a good life. We were well respected,” she says.

They were a successful Sunni family, their names known in Iraqi leadership circles. But everything changed after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Bloody sectarian strife followed, and with it came threats on Bushra’s and Mazin’s lives.

They fled to Jordan, like Ahmad, and thought they would return when things calmed down. But war raged in Iraq. Two of Bushra’s brothers were killed.

The U.S. invasion forced millions to leave Iraq and left hundreds of thousands dead.

After many months of living in limbo, Bushra and her family arrived in the United States on September 17, 2008.

Bushra says she was lucky. She was able to bring money with her. She had a relative in Akron, Ohio, who took the family in for the first few months and sold them her old Chrysler so the family could get around. Bushra didn’t even know how to put gas in the tank – stations in Iraq were full service.

Mazin wanted to practice medicine again but had to be recertified in America, so he began studying for the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination. It was as though he’d hurtled back in time to his first year in medical school. It was humiliating to Mazin, but Bushra says her husband had no choice. He tempered his pride and studied dawn to night at the library and told his wife: If you don’t support me, I will not make it.

Bushra’s son Ahmed was 22 then and got a job at a Five Guys franchise flipping burgers. He got a second job at Chick-fil-A and worked 80 hours a week to help pay the bills.

Mazin was able to go back to heart surgery. Ahmed waited until he qualified for in-state tuition, went back to college, repeated two years and earned a degree in electrical engineering. The family moved to Atlanta two years ago when Mazin was offered a job as a heart transplant specialist at Emory University’s School of Medicine.

Bushra thought about becoming an ultrasound technician and took courses to learn. But in a practical session, when she was answering to a young doctor, she decided the job would be too painful after having been a top health administrator in Iraq.

Bushra says her family made it, but they had so many advantages. What happens to someone with no money and little education? What happens when you arrive in America with nothing but the clothes on your back?

“I don’t know if (the government) has a good plan for the people,” says Bushra, who now volunteers her time at the Refugee Women’s Network, the Atlanta support agency in Atlanta where Naji works. “The money, the food support, is not enough.”

She has been working closely with new arrivals from Syria and Iraq. Many can’t even read or write Arabic properly, let alone English.

Bushra tells them they have to decide what they want to get out of life in America. She tells them they have to have steely determination and work three times harder than they did before.

Even now, nine years after Bushra arrived in the United States, she is still challenged by some aspects of American life. She had to seek help from Naji when she got a speeding ticket and had to show up in court. Bushra did not know how to act, what to say. Cultural differences can get in the way, and they take a long time to overcome.

“I am educated. I can understand English and I am still struggling,” Bushra says.

Bushra says she meets refugees who think they have made it when they step off the plane onto American soil. They think their ordeal is over.

“Sorry, but that is not enough.”

Awino, 2001: ‘You have come to the right place’

Awino Gam was 20 when he arrived in Atlanta on June 6, 2001. He had nothing with him. No family. No possessions. The apartment he began sharing with three other young South Sudanese men was the first home he’d known since 1983, when civil war erupted in Sudan.

He was only 5 when soldiers and militiamen attacked his home town of Bor. Awino ran to flee the violence. And he kept running for many years.

Separated from his family, Awino was one of the 20,000 Nuer and Dinka boys who were displaced from their homes and forced into refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. They became known as the “Lost Boys.”

Awino spent nine years at the Kakuma camp in Kenya before he was selected for resettlement in Atlanta. Everything here was a shock to Awino – from the glittering towers of glass downtown to the simplest things in his apartment. Some of the Lost Boys did not even know how to light an electric stove. They had never seen one before.

The Kakuma camp in Kenya has held tens of thousands of refugees from Sudan and elsewhere.

Life’s challenges seemed insurmountable. It was so difficult to do small things like catch the right bus. Awino laughs about times he got lost, but it was hardly funny then.

He worked overnights at the airport cleaning the terminals, carpet and restrooms. During the day, he collected dirty plates from the rooms at a Westin Hotel. He earned minimum wage and began saving to pay his bills and send money home to relatives in need.

“It was exhausting.”

When he enrolled in high school, he quit the airport job so he could catch a few hours of sleep. He wants refugees trying to come to America to know this: “It was difficult from the beginning. But I am glad to be here. This is still the land of opportunity.”

Awino says in his homeland, the newly independent nation of South Sudan, there is no free schooling. Nor are there loans available for college. Yet education is so important, especially for refugees who have never gone to school or who, like him, have been forced to miss years of schooling.

Awino now works as an information technology specialist, is married and has two young children. He says he has made it but has a long way to go before he achieves his American dream. He, like Ahmad from Syria, wants to buy a house and make sure his children receive the best education possible.

He has one thing to say to Ahmad and the thousands others who are new in America: “You have come to the right place. Now do something for yourself.”