Syrian Refugee Students: Facing the Unbearable

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Syrian refugee students Abdallan Al-Hariri, Wedad Al-Hariri, Zelal Zemal, and Asmaa Zemal stand together as their classmates attempt to make them laugh during what they all liked calling a “photoshoot.” Photo Credit / Chloe Lupini

“No one would say anything but you could see it in their eyes and their reaction to us. [You could see it in] their faces, like we were not normal. It’s that we aren’t accepted [in America], that is a strange thing,” said Loy Norrix freshman Asmaa Zema. Asmaa is a Syrian refugee.

The Syrian Civil War began in 2011 when Syrian citizens demanded a democracy and an end to corruption. Now it has erupted into a war between the government and rebels opposing Bashar Al-Assad, the president of Syria since 2000, both of whom are still in the fight against the Islamic state (ISIS).  Syria was home to more than 20 million citizens, now their home is in ruins. Since 2011, more than 12 million Syrians have fled the country in desperate need of a safe place to stay. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, over 207 thousand civilians have been killed in the civil war.

It’s easy to look away when we hear about the bad in the world. We hear about all the suffering and pain that people are going through and we tend to change the subject, but what about when that pain and sorrow moves into our own backyard? Do you still look away?

In Loy Norrix teacher Steven Howell’s English Second Language (ESL) class, students from all around the world learn about the new environment they have been tossed into.

“My class is pretty much a two-way street,” said Howell. “I learn from them and they learn from me. There is always a way to speak with them even when I am not fluent in the 57 languages spoken in this school.”

Learning a completely new language in a different country can be tricky. Constant meetings take place with translator Shadia Kanaan, who was present at this interview, making communication as easy as possible.

“It was difficult to come in the beginning, not knowing your language, but the attitude that we found among the staff helped us to like it, learn from them and to communicate with them,” said Loy Norrix freshmen Zelal Zema.

Zelal, along with her sister Asmaa and two other ESL students, Wedad Al-Hariri and her brother Abdallan, were forced from their home in Syria due to the unsafe conditions. After years of awaiting approval of their immigration papers and finally being able to enter the United States, all four were brought here to Kalamazoo, where they would then meet each other.

“Loy Norrix is very very good, very nice,” Abdallan proudly stated in English. “I can speak with most all, but it is still hard at times.”

All four students have had a hard transition to their new lifestyle in the U.S., but have adjusted well to their new environment. They all still wish to be home promoting peace and not war.  

Before the war, their lives weren’t so different from that of the average American kid. Going to school during the day then coming home and spending time with friends and family. Just like everyday people, they would ride bikes, go on walks and go to the beach.

After the war started, Asmaa and Zelal’s school was shut down and it was not safe for them to leave their house. They had no electricity and supplies were scarce due to the danger of going outside.

Wedad and Abdallah’s school stayed open through the start of the war. They would walk to school every day, the difference being they had to stop at a set of checkpoints along their way to improve their chances of surviving the rest of the walk to school.

“No, no, no,” said Wadad on the brink of tears. “I do not wish to talk about this anymore. I do not wish to talk about this.”

Through the loss and heartache caused by the war, these students never lost hope. All four students plan on returning to their home country in order to rebuild what they once saw before the start of the war.

“I am here, and I am okay,” said Abdallan, spinning a pencil between his fingers. “But I will always wish to be there.”

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These students are learning English which includes learning to use our letters rather than the Arabic letters used in their home language. Many words will be sounded out phonetically at first.

It is hard to imagine what the people of Syria are going through. Hundreds of thousands of people are being killed, and they are just trying to reach safety.

As U.S. citizens, we are all so lucky to be living in a democracy with the freedoms we have been granted. We are not going through a war with each other, and we are not watching our country, our home, crumble before our eyes.

We cannot be scared of refugees. With their country in shambles they are reaching out for help, and we are able to supply them with the help they need. We live in a country that we call the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we can live the American Dream. How can we call ourselves the home of the brave when we are too scared to let people who don’t know if they are going to survive the next day, past our border?

For a refugee to enter the country they first have to register with the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR. The UNHCR identifies vulnerable people in difficult situations, while also taking into account their biographical information and amount of medical attention they might require. Once the U.N. refers a refugee, a U.S. government-funded refugee center will then receive the application and continue to pursue the multiple background checks and to ensure they are fleeing their country in search of safety. The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population will take in referrals from UNHCR but has full authority in whether or not refugees are admitted. Since the civil war broke out in 2011, 23 thousand refugees have been referred to the United States from UNHCR, and only 2,281 have been approved.

“I would watch children dying under the rubble,” said Wedad, tears coming to her eyes. “I just wished I could go out and do something and help and make a good life for myself to then come back and help. It was very to difficult to sit and watch death and destruction all the time.”

Emotions quickly set in among the four students as Abdallan went on to explain the effects of the war on both him and his sister Wedad, recalling the thousands of refugees who have died at sea.

“All of the death and destruction is always on my mind,” stuttered Abdallan. “People leaving home fearing dying, then crossing the ocean only to drown, it’s always on my mind.”

“Crossing the streets because of the snipers, we never knew if we were going to make it to the other side. So we would say a prayer before going because we just wouldn’t know if we were going to make it or not,” said Zelal.

Many children our age can not imagine facing the day to day struggles Syrian refugees and Muslim minorities face everyday.

“When we first came here wearing the headdress the attitude from the other students was like I was not an intelligent person, like I was not a competent person,” said Wedad. “I felt not accepted for my culture and what I stand for. That really affected me a lot.”

As Middle Eastern Muslims coming into the U.S Wedad, Abdallah, Asmaa, and Zelal were not expecting good treatment due to the pre-existing assumptions U.S. citizens make post 9/11.

The attacks on September 11, 2001 have been affiliated with people of Middle Eastern descent and of the Muslim religion, negatively representing Muslim culture to the American eye. The radical Islamic group organized by Osama Bin Laden in the late 1999s known as Al-Qaeda, was held responsible for the attacks. As a result of this ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, splintered off from Al-Qaeda forming its own Islamic extremist group devoted to establishing an independent Islamic state.

Unlike Al-Qaeda, ISIS has proven to be more brutal and more effective at controlling territory. According to CNN, ISIS is putting governing structures in place to rule the territories the group conquers once the dust settles on the battlefield. ISIS is now known for killing dozens of people at a time and carrying out public executions, crucifixions and other acts.

The attacks we hear about on the news claimed by groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS and conducted by Muslims and Middle Easterners often leave Americans with the assumption that all Muslims, overseas and law-abiding citizens of the U.S., can also be a threat. This stereotyping can also lead to acts of discrimination against those live in the U.S.

The frustration of being judged by their religious affiliation and ethnicity gave Abdallan, Wedad, Asmaa, and Zelal incentive to work harder to get accustomed to their new home.

“The people who criticized me initially are now my friends and there is a good communication between us. We are learning from them, and they are learning our culture and respecting it,” said Wedad.

Through all of the hard times these four students have faced, they have never given up hope for the future of their country.

“I image for the wars to be over and for my country to be rebuilt, and I want to be there to be a part of rebuilding and the serving my country,” added Abdallan.

“I wish for time to go back and to be reunited with my friends and family,” continued Asmaa. “I wish to go back to Syria and help people learn to stop fighting and get people to believe in more positive ways of life not fighting and killing. I wish to rebuild my country.”

“I just want to stop the bloodshed,” stuttered Zelal.

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Loy Norrix students from around the globe gather in Steven Howell’s ESL (English second language) class for their last hour of the day. As they become comfortable with the camera, they begin to pose and make one another laugh. Photo Credit / Chloe Lupini

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