Ramia Aljasem tunes in to television footage of Syrian refugees arriving on a Greek beach, a damp wad of Kleenex balled up in her fist.
Huddled next to her in her sparse Rochester living room are the youngest of Aljasem’s five children: 5-year-old Samar and 7-year-old Abdulbari. Watching youngsters in life vests jumping off inflatable rafts, Aljasem thinks of the evening three years ago when she and husband Mohamad Al Obeid carried Samar and Abdulbari in their arms across the Syrian border with Jordan.
As scenes of Syrians making their way across Europe have come to dominate international newscasts, some in Minnesota have sprung to action. Noting the state’s traditionally active role in refugee resettlement, some Democratic members of the state’s congressional delegation are calling on the Obama administration to admit more refugees from Syria even as some of their colleagues in Congress have argued for a more cautious approach and questioned the refugee vetting process. Residents are organizing vigils, social media campaigns and fundraising drives.
Aljasem and Al Obeid, who arrived in Rochester in April, are the only Syrian refugee family resettled in Minnesota since 2011. State officials do not foresee an uptick because Minnesota’s lack of an established Syrian American community does not make it a prime destination for resettlement. Still, the couple welcomed news Thursday that the United States has committed to resettling 10,000 Syrians over the coming year. Some are calling for the limits to be far higher.
“We have lost everything, but we have a voice,” said Aljasem through an interpreter, “I hope the whole world will hear us and find a solution.”
A family’s journey
Until the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011, Aljasem and Al Obeid enjoyed a comfortable middle-class life in Homs, where he worked for his father’s construction materials business. But Syria’s third-largest city soon became an opposition stronghold, and the couple’s neighborhood a focal point of the fighting.
On Feb. 12, 2012, government shelling heavily damaged their home and injured Al Obeid’s father. The family fled with the clothes they were wearing, a first-aid kit, some valuables and two blankets.
“When we left our house, our suffering started,” Al Obeid said.
For five months, they bounced among the crowded homes of relatives as the fighting kept catching up with them. When a United Nations-brokered cease-fire in Homs quickly unraveled, the Obeids decided to leave Syria. They paid a man to drive them to the border with Jordan. Then they crossed on foot, terrified they might come under Syrian border patrol fire.
The family traveled to Irbid, a city near the border where Aljasem’s sister had arrived months earlier. They remember the next two years as an increasingly hopeless time. As Syrian nationals, they could not legally work. They scraped by on United Nations refugee assistance and money from gold jewelry Aljasem sold.
Then, in June 2014 Al Obeid got a call: The family was in line for resettlement to the United States. He says he barely slept the following two nights, wakeful with a mix of incredulity, apprehension and excitement.
“I feel it was just pure luck,” he said. “Maybe there was a reason we were chosen, but we don’t know what it was.”
Of the 4 million people flushed from Syria by the war since 2011, the United States has resettled fewer than 1,500. Since 2003, Minnesota has taken in nine Syrians, counting the Al Obeid family. In recent years Minnesota has averaged more than 2,000 refugees a year, mostly people with ties to immigrants already in the state — a factor that weighs when the State Department determines where a refugee settles. Local resettlement agencies take on only a small number of so-called “free cases” each year: immigrants like the Al Obeid family who did not know anyone in the U.S.
“With few people of Syrian descent currently living in Minnesota, the state is not likely to be a destination for many Syrian refugees,” said Jacqueline Nelson of Lutheran Social Service in Minnesota.
Ten months after that 2014 phone call, after a series of interviews and a background check, the family flew to Minnesota. They settled in Rochester quietly, at a time when it seemed to them the plight of Syrians was becoming increasingly obscure and forgotten. In recent days, that time seems to have come to an end.
A moment of ‘moral clarity’
The past week has been emotional for the Al Obeid family. Photos of the body of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian child who drowned when his family tried to cross from Turkey to Greece, broke their hearts. Preparing chicken for her family earlier this week, Aljasem broke down in tears, thinking of the deprivation that Syrians on the move are facing. But she is also hopeful the moment in the spotlight will galvanize the international community.
Recent developments in Europe have brought about “a moment of moral clarity,” says Daniel Wordsworth, head of the Minnesota-based American Refugee Committee, which works with Syrians inside Syria to provide medicine, clean water and other supplies to residents trapped by the fighting.
“People have been able to see through the smoke and confusion of Syria, that this is truly a humanitarian tragedy,” he said.
The nonprofit has seen an uptick in donations and calls from would-be volunteers in recent days. Lutheran Social Service and other resettlement agencies in the Twin Cities have heard from Minnesotans offering to host Syrian refugees in their homes.
A group of local Syrian Americans and others crashed U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison’s Labor Day picnic for a silent demonstration, prompting him to write to Obama urging a stronger U.S. response to the refugee crisis. A group of Twin Cities women who call themselves Mothers for Syria are planning an Oct. 3 vigil in Father Hennepin Bluff Park and a letter-writing campaign to members of the state’s congressional delegation. Those efforts could run into larger roadblocks. Support for increased Syrian immigration to the U.S. is far from uniform. Some, like U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., have said that taking in more Syrian refugees could put Americans at risk.
Meanwhile, the Al Obeid family is easing into life in Minnesota. The transition has been tough at times: They worry about family members back in Syria and Jordan. They’ve felt lonely and overwhelmed by the task of starting over from scratch. They’ve run into a language barrier and more recently, the long wait lists for subsidized housing in Rochester.
But, says Kristina Hammell, the refugee resettlement director with Catholic Charities of Winona, they’ve kept a positive attitude: “This family has really put the hard work into being resettled,” she said.
Al Obeid got a job at Wal-Mart in June, after walking the 3 miles to the store for an interview. Raed, his 12-year-old, says his head hurt last spring as he tried to make out what his elementary school teachers were saying. But in middle school this year, he understands much more, and he’s come to like his classes, especially math. He hopes to be a doctor at the Mayo Clinic one day.