The US has agreed to take up to 10,000 Syrian refugees this year. But how will these people be received? Ahead of the refugee summit in New York, Miodrag Soric spoke with a Syrian family in Detroit.
The street looks like it's straight out of a picture book. Each home has a white porch and a neatly trimmed lawn. Sidewalks run down either side of the tree-lined street. There are children about, laughing, not in any hurry to get home from school. This is Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit in the US state of Michigan. It is a place that – even if only just – has survived the economic crisis of recent years.
This is where Taghreed Alrwadsh, together with her husband and five children, has ended up. The family is originally from Draa in southern Syria. After security forces torched their house, the family fled to neighboring Jordan, where they endured three and a half years in a Jordanian refugee camp. With the help of the UN they then tried to secure a US visa, which meant putting up with countless interviews with American consular officials. They had almost given up hope that it would work out. "It was a lottery," they recall now. But then came the relief at being among the chosen few that Washington was going to allow in. They received official authorization two months ago.
This year up to 10,000 Syrian refugees will be allowed to re-settle in the US. Shortly before the refugee summit in New York, the government in Washington announced that in the coming year it will be increasing this intake quota by 30 percent.
Help given by compatriots
But why was Taghreed Alrwadsh's family given permission to travel to the US when the applications of many others have been denied? The fact that Taghreed has two disabled children likely tipped the balance in her favor. Next to her on the porch is a folded wheelchair belonging to one of her children. She stares silently into the distance, waiting for her husband to come home from his temporary job at a slaughter house in the city. Meanwhile, her house is fully equipped: furniture, kitchen appliances and soft, carpeted floors.
They received help from Syrian compatriots. One of these is Nada Kourdi, who works as a translator. She is one of a group of like-minded citizens who decided last summer to volunteer to help newly arrived Syrian refugees. "It's because I am also from Syria and I didn't want my fellow countrymen to have bad experiences in the USA." According to Nada Kourdi, the hardest thing is to learn the language: "You can't get anywhere here without speaking English."
Prayers in English and Arabic
She accompanies Taghreed Alrwadsh to a nearby mosque that belongs to the Islamic Center of Detroit. Men and women pray in separate rooms. Many of the women are clothed in black and are fully veiled. During Friday prayers, Taghreed Alrwadsh meets with other people from Syria. This exchange is very important to her. During the sermon, the imam switches from Arabic to English. For the prayers in a later service he will only speak Arabic.
After the prayers, volunteers from the Islamic Center sell falafels and sandwiches. Mansour Shara, the vice-president of the center says that the proceeds will be given to the approximately 100 refugee families who attend the mosque. It is estimated that around 100,000 Muslims live in Detroit and the surrounding area - many of them in Dearborn.
"The hardest thing for refugees is to adjust the American culture," says Shara. Women in the US have equal rights and Islam here is just one religion among many. Many new arrivals also have experienced terrible suffering in Syria or in refugee camps. They're still processing what they've lived through.
The Islam center is an important meeting place for the estimated 100,000 Muslims currently residing in the greater Detroit area
Hard to adjust
Madiha Tariq sees the situation in a similar light. She works as Public Health Manager for ACCESS, an organization offering help to refugees in Dearborn. "We organize doctor's appointments, offer support in dealing with the authorities, help find language courses - whatever is needed," she says.
Tariq is originally from Pakistan and knows how difficult it can be to make a new start in foreign surroundings. She estimates that around 400,000 Americans with an Arab background are currently living in Michigan. "Around half of them came to the US as refugees."
Many of them work in the automobile industry. The Ford headquarters are in Dearborn. Michigan was hit hard by the financial crisis in 2008/2009. But thanks to generous financial support from Washington, the car industry survived. Since then the economic outlook has significantly improved.
Fear of unemployment
Yet there is widespread fear among many of the residents in Dearborn that they could lose their jobs on short notice. And with this comes the fear that a new wave of refugees from the Middle East could intensify competition in the job market. Talking to people around Dearborn, many are critical of the situation with the new arrivals. Behind such comments are fears that Syrian refugees could take advantage of the already weak social and health systems in the US. Some even suggest that the new Syrian arrivals are terrorists and quote racist slogans from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Sitting on Taghreed Alrwadsh's terrace, the absurdity of such assertions is clear. She is gently stroking her youngest daughter's hair. Taghreed misses her parents terribly – as well as the rest of her family. Her parents are still in a Jordanian refugee camp. When asked if she would someday like to return to Syria, she nods, wiping tears from her eyes: "Syria is the most beautiful country in the world. No country can make you feel as welcome as your homeland."