Giovanna Z. Rinaldo
Bombs kicked them out of their homes, their cities and their country. Carrying with them some clothes and hope, the Kanjou, Wawieh and Kisiby families crossed borders and continents before arriving in Southern California.
While the frequently hot and dry Inland Valley climate is similar to their native Syria, everything else has changed.
They have begun to speak English, though they still think in Arabic.
The Kanjous were the first of the three families to arrive in Pomona in October. Mustafa, 32, Haiam, 22, and their two young daughters were brought from a refugee camp in Jordan by a United Nations agency.
They first stayed at an American Inn hotel in Pomona, just a few blocks from the Islamic Center of Claremont.
The Islamic Center’s social services director Mahmoud Tarifi, and private donors, helped the family find an apartment, donated furniture and a used car.
More than 3,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in the U.S since the start of the Syrian Civil War in March 2011, and more than 350 refugees are currently residing in California, according to the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center.
The Syrian refugee crisis is already considered the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. As of Feb. 11, the Civil War’s death toll has been more than 470,000.
For the millions of Syrians who have made the critical decision to flee their wartorn country, the list of challenges is extensive. It includes learning a new language, finding jobs, enrolling children in school and adapting to a new culture.
The relief agencies that bring refugees to the United States support them with limited funds for a limited time, usually about $800 for 90 days.
“There is no customized package for refugees,” he said. “They have bills to pay, and this is their only income,” Tarifi said. “The agencies are not ready to handle refugees for many reasons, (mostly) lack of understanding of the refugees’ situation, the refugees’ rights, the refugees’ ability to communicate, the refugees’ dilemma.”
Tarifi said the Islamic Center of Claremont tries to address these issues and believes the welcoming package should be customized, as it is in Europe. “(In Europe) they don’t want the family to work, they want them to get educated. They give them housing, job training, they give them financial aid for a period of time when they prepare them to enter the civil society and the work force,” Tarifi said.
More than 13 million people in Syria currently need humanitarian assistance, according to a March report from the United Nations.
Additionally, according to the same report, 4.6 million Syrians are refugees, 6.6 million are displaced within Syria, and half of those displaced are children.
While most Syrian refugees have remained in the Middle East – typically in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt; about 10 percent of the refugees have fled to Europe. Only 0.0006 percent of the refugees have resided in the United States.
A month after the Kanjous’ arrival, the Wawiehs took residence in the United States. The family of eight initially stayed at the same Pomona hotel.
Once again heroically coming to the aid of a family in crisis, the Islamic Center of Claremont appealed to donors and interfaith councils to help the family find permanent housing.
The parents are still looking for jobs, but all six of their children are currently attending school.
The Kisibys, a family of five, also arrived soon after the Kanjous, and now call Azusa their home.
With a new baby – born shortly after their arrival – the Kisibys are struggling with reduced financial assistance, because of confusion over complicated paperwork.
Tarifi is trying to help the Kisiby family get back on their feet.
He emphasized the importance of supporting refugees in a successful transition.
“The philosophy in our society is totally that you have to earn it,” Tarifi said. “All that works on paper, works in theory, but it really shouldn’t be like that.”
“These people don’t (necessarily) want to be here, they were forced to be here by the circumstances of the war,” Tarifi said.
Professor of Sociology Sharon Davis said people generally want to stay in their own country if possible. Reasons for immigration are generally associated with extremities such as distress in the homeland, such as a health epidemic, employment crisis, famine, persecution or war.
“(These) usually combine or exist alone to drive people out of their countries,” Davis said. “You very seldom find immigrants who leave their country who are doing well. They’re always marginalized individuals who, at best, are fleeing something that could damage their health, their family’s health, take their lives.”
Davis said California offers some advantages for the families coming here: it is a more liberal and culturally diverse state that also has a good climate. On the other hand, the cost of living is higher than most U.S. states.
“I’ve always believed, as a sociologist, it must not only take great distress to cause people to think seriously about leaving their country, but it also takes great courage to go into the unknown,” Davis said.
The community benefits from refugees coming here through the cultural exchange, Davis said.
Some refugees were doctors, teachers, engineers and a variety of other esteemed professions in Syria.
“I think maybe some of the (fear of immigrants) may be due to stereotypes and preconceived notions of individuals as being threats,” Davis said.
Davis added that crime rates among immigrants tend to be low.
“The immigrants who come here are looking for a better life for themselves and their families. They’re looking to work hard, live the American dream and thrive,” Davis said. “That equation doesn’t include crime or hurting others.”
Psychology professor Nadine Nakamura said Syrian refugees are a vulnerable population.
Many have suffered the trauma of war and the loss of all that is familiar.
Many suffer post-traumatic stress disorder according to Nakamura.
Refugee children sometimes assume a parental role, Nakamura said, adding that young kids who have an easier time processing acculturation than their parents may end up as “cultural brokers” for their families.
Refugees who then experience discrimination may be further traumatized, Nakamura said.
“To have a basic assumption that people are trying their best and that if they don’t speak English it’s not a reflection of their feelings about America or anything like that.”
With limited resources, the Islamic Center of Claremont is working to support the refugees.
Last November, the Kanjou and Wawieh families experienced their first American Thanksgiving dinner at Tarifi’s house.
Two other families, currently at refugee camps in Jordan and Egypt, are expected to arrive in Pomona before the end of the year.
Tarifi is ready to welcome them with open arms and assistance.
“If you are an American and you hold the Constitution and you hold American values, the last thing you need to say is that Syrian refugees need not to come here,” Tarifi said. “The Constitution and the founding of this country is really designed and built for all oppressed people to come to this land of liberty.
“These refugees are reeducating us, reminding us who we are,” he said. Tarifi said that love and moral support are what the families need the most upon arriving.
Giovanna Z. Rinaldo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.