For Syrian refugees in Tucson, the fog of war yields to a struggle to persevere


Arizona Sonora News

A young girl shrieks  to her mother for help. She is trapped underneath the rubble of what was once her home. The boom of the air missiles echo in the air, overpowering the screams of Samira and her children. She is scrambling to save their lives; the bombs explode through her ability to scramble. Dark clouds hang above the remnants of their neighborhood in the Syrian city of Daraa, near the Jordan border.

Those are still fresh memories. After a year of struggling to survive, Samira and her children have been on a very long journey from Syria to southern Arizona. Their connections to get here were a lot more harrowing than any typical long-distance airplane trip. The flashbacks and memories of traumatic moments reverberate through their minds as they gain physical and cultural traction in a new land that they now call home.

Before they arrive here, most refugees who flee Syria make their way through Jordan, Turkey or Egypt. They usually arrive with the aid of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an inter-agency effort that works to provide support and humanitarian assistance to refugees and internally displaced people.

Their stories are often poignant, as many refugee stories are.

Samira, 37 years old, is now  living in Tucson with her four children between the ages of three and thirteen. Samira and her children finally entered the United States last May from Cairo after leaving her homeland of Syria in 2012.

Samira’s husband was stuck in Syria because he was helping his sisters to get out of Daraa, but then found it was difficult for him to leave. It has now been four years since they saw him.

“My son insisted on buying a toy airplane,” she said in Arabic, translated by this reporter. “When I asked him what he was going to do with the plane, he said, ‘I bought this for my dad so he can finally come be with us.’”

Arizona took in 833 Syrian refugees in the year-long period ending Sept. 30, according to State Department data. Syrians make up the second most populous refugee group arriving in Arizona in that period, after those from the Democratic Republic of Congo (1,212). The third most populous group was Somalian refugees (682).

Before their arrival in the U.S., Samira and many other Syrian refugees in similar situations say they were promised eight to 12 months of financial support, but some say that was not forthcoming. “Why would they get our hopes up knowing that we are desperately in need and when we finally arrive, they don’t fulfill their promises?” said Samira, whose name has been changed at her request.

The refugees who fled from Syria to Jordan, Turkey or Egypt, usually come through the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an inter-governmental organization that works to provide support and humanitarian aid to any migrant in need, in addition to refugees and internally displaced people.There seems to be some confusion about extended aid in the United States. A spokeswoman for the agency said that the IOM does not provide any services to the refugees once they arrive in the United States. However, she had no comment on whether or not clients are told that other refugee services in the U.S. would assist them upon resettlement.

Refugees who fled from small rural village areas to Tucson are going through a phase of pressure, mentally and psychologically, from life amid the terrors of war to life in the cultural and financial pressures of trying to gain traction in America.

 In a village, expenses are minimal. For example, they typically did not need to worry about paying rent or buying a car, or purchasing health insurance or car insurance. Some don’t even know what car insurance is.

With neighbors, small shops and markets next to each other in a village, most of a day’s routine chores and social transactions can be accomplished in a quick walk. Typically, resettling into America, the changes and transitions are shocking to them. Life is fast-paced and, many say, overwhelming. In America the job system is more complex for the average refugees’ experience to readily manage. Life in war was a frightening struggle, but life in America can present new, different struggles for families.

A fear of becoming homeless in this new environment is pervasive. Confusion prevails about the cushion of resettlement support from refugee organizations after resettlement.

“IOM has never provided aid or any kind of assistance to refugees in the U.S. beyond the time they set foot in the country. Refugees resettled in the U.S. are eligible for assistance and services provided by federal and state agencies depending in which state they are residing. Sometimes, the refugees could also find support from the private sector or individuals. However IOM plays no role in the integration or transition process of refugees in the U.S.,” said Hajer Naili, the IOM communications and social media coordinator.

“Once refugees arrive in the U.S., they immediately fall under the responsibility of resettlement agencies [inside the United States],” said Naili.

Depending on which country they are coming from, each family goes through many steps during stages of refugee resettlement with the IOM. To begin with, it may take from one to four years through the IOM to get certification as a legal immigrant to the United States.

The International Rescue Committee, Catholic Community Services and Refugee Focus are the three main refugee services in Tucson. “Last fiscal year, the IRC in Tucson resettled 454 refugees, 105 of which are Syrians,” said Patricia Repolda, International Rescue Committee development coordinator.

Currently, Arizona holds the third highest refugee population, behind Michigan and California. “They [Syrians] will be among the top refugee population that we will be resettling in for this fiscal year,” Repolda said of her committee’s efforts.

According to the White House, 10,000 Syrian refugees are expected to come to the U.S. over this fiscal year and 400 of them are estimated to come to Arizona.

What they leave behind are memories of war.

More than 11 million Syrians were forced out of their homes due to the intense fighting in the 15-year-old Syrian civil war. There are more than 4.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. 6.6 million are internally displaced within Syria with more than 13.5 million in need of assistance inside Syria.

Samira’s house was invaded and destroyed. “I had to leave Syria when we found ourselves with nothing other than the clothes that we were wearing; my children trapped beneath the rubble of our home, broken hearts and faded memories.”

After living in Egypt for a year, Samira learned that both of her parents were killed during the fighting. “For two years, I thought my husband died because I didn’t hear anything from him until this year,” she said.

In Syria, Samira had few bills to pay. Living in Tucson, Samira faces financial struggles as a single mother. “Every night after I put my kids to sleep, I cry into the comfort of my pillow. Although I don’t show my emotions to my children, I do feel alone, stressed and lost. I have lost my parents, my homeland and my husband.”

There is also the disconnect with relatives still in Syria. “The only way my family can get in touch with me is through Internet access,” which is not dependable, she said. Samira’s younger sisters are trapped in Syria. She says her youngest sister lost her eyesight during the fighting and bombing that killed her parents.

In 2011, the beginning of the war, it was easier for Syrians to find refuge in neighboring countries: Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. But beginning in 2014 one by one these countries started to close off their borders to Syrians.

As a result, many Syrians are forced to illegally flee to European countries by boat, despite the dangers. 

Mahmoud Al-Rahmoon plays with his only toy, a slightly deflated soccer ball, in his family's apartment on Oct. 16, 2016. Al-Rahmoon dreams of one day owning his own car and airplane and becoming a professional soccer player. (Photo by Rebecca Noble / Arizona Sonora News)
Mahmoud Al-Rahmoon in his family’s apartment on Oct. 16, 2016. Al-Rahmoon dreams of one day owning his own car and becoming a professional soccer player. (Photo by Rebecca Noble / Arizona Sonora News)

“It’s like you’re in a boat and you don’t know whether you’re going to drown or arrive to your destination barely breathing,” said Mohammed Al-Rahmoon, 50, another Syrian refugee in Tucson with his wife and three children. Two older sons are in Jordan, after they fled Syria “My two sons used to support our lives. We used to only pay $250 rent per month in Jordan, and they used to pay it for me. Now, how am I going to pay $700 alone just for rent?” Al-Rahmoon said.

Al-Rahmoon said he has had brain surgery, has been diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s disease, and has back problems. “I talked to my case worker and he told me it is hard to bring my sons here because they are married and require a separate case,” said Al-Rahmoon.

Upon arriving in the US, Al-Rahmoon’s family witnessed a significant difference in the way of life between Homs, a city in western Syria, and the United States. In Syria, his wife didn’t feel the need to learn to drive, attend school or to work outside of her home. However, in the United States life moves faster, with more demands.

“Every refugee resettled in Tucson through the IRC receives a minimum of three months’ cash assistance to support rent and other resettlement costs as determined by the federal government,” said Jeffrey Cornish, the executive director of the International Rescue Committee. Any assistance beyond the initial 90 days is determined by a variety of factors, including eligibility to participate in an Office of Refugee Resettlement-sponsored early employment Matching Grant program, Arizona state regulations regarding benefits to refugees, and local charitable donations.

Among the IRC’s resettlement program, there are opportunities for self-reliance through job training and placement, English language instruction, cultural orientation classes and referral to appropriate health care facilities.

“We work tirelessly with the limited resources allocated by the state and federal government to provide refugees with the support they need to rebuild their lives in their new communities.” said Cornish. “IRC upholds the highest ethical standards regarding the treatment of refugees and the use of federal and state resources to support refugee resettlement.”

The refugees’ organizations in Tucson provide nutrition assistance, health assistance, and pay rent costs for the first three months of their resettlement. Then the individuals have to rely on themselves.

“After being here for five months they told me they are no longer responsible to pay the rent [or] bills. How could I work and leave my little kids by themselves at home? I can’t afford putting them in a child care,” Samira said. “I have to volunteer for 20 hours every week in order to get the $397 assistance per month, but we have no other choice.”

Al Rahmoon said, “the living here is more expensive and harder than the living in the Middle East. Here I have to learn the language, get a car, work and pay bills in order to live. There, I used to only pay for our food and essential expenses.”

Many resettled refugees say they were expecting to live the American dream through hard work. But for many Syrian families in southern Arizona, the transition has been unexpectedly difficult.

“We fought and battled during the war just to be alive, and now I’m fighting and battling just to secure the living for my kids,” said Samira.“My only wish is for me and my kids to have a better life and begin a new page in the story of our life.”

“We work tirelessly with the limited resources allocated by the state and federal government to provide refugees with the support they need to rebuild their lives in their new communities.” said Cornish. “IRC upholds the highest ethical standards regarding the treatment of refugees and the use of federal and state resources to support refugee resettlement.”



Born in Iraq, raised in America, Nour Haki is a journalism major. Curiosity is what drove her to journalism, hoping to land a career in fashion journalism field. Why fashion? She has always been passionate about the creative aspect of it and the way it applies to herself, and to art and society.


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