A Syrian family's dream of a new life restored
KAHLOUNEYE, Lebanon – Over 15 people packed into the small room on a windy winter’s day in Lebanon’s Shouf Mountains. Family, friends and neighbours were all there to say their last goodbyes to the Syrian refugee family bound for a new life in the United States.
Some were laughing, others were crying as Abdel Moein Al Abed, 37, and his wife, Fatima, 31, walked in and out of the room, stealing a kiss or a hug from their loved ones. They darted back to pack their suitcases with their eight-year-old twins, Mohamad and Jomaa, and their daughter, Shahd, aged five.
“We were so happy, all of us. I was mostly happy for my children,” said Abdel Moein, recalling the moment last year he got the call from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, telling him his family was being considered for resettlement to the United States. “I want them to have good education, a good future.”
"I was mostly happy for my children. I want them to have good education, a good future.”
Now preparing to start over in Tampa, Florida, the family were among hundreds of Syrian refugees whose lives were put on hold last month, when their entry to the United States was temporarily suspended. Having waited for years to have a chance to rebuild their lives, the news was devastating.
“I was told that my departure date was on the 7th of February. So we prepared ourselves and I quit my job. We packed our things and I notified the landlord that I was going to move out. I sold most of my household goods.”
But the excitement did not last long. Abdel Moein was watching the news when he heard about the executive order halting the programme. Shortly after that, he received the phone call he dreaded: his resettlement was to be postponed, until further notice.
“My son Mohamad was so excited that he would sometimes cry and ask me, ‘When are we going to get on the plane?’ My daughter Shahd would ask too. I didn’t know what to say. What would I say? We were about to travel and now we are not?’’ said his wife, Fatima.
But a week later, the family’s hope was restored. “They called me again on the 5th of February and told me that I can now travel. ‘The ban was revoked and you can now travel’, they said.
UNHCR field staff identify and refer the most vulnerable refugees for resettlement, such as people needing medical assistance, survivors of torture and women and children at risk. Initial checks carried out by UNHCR include document verification and iris scans to verify applicants’ identity, and a vulnerability assessment to confirm their eligibility for resettlement.
Strong candidates selected by the UN Refugee Agency are then put through detailed screening by US authorities, which conduct their own rigorous vetting processes and alone decide whether to accept a refugee for resettlement.
The process can take up to two years, and involves inter-agency security checks, in-person interviews, biometric security checks, background checks, different security databases, and U.S. federal government agencies.
Before departure for the United States, successful applicants are given a five-day cultural orientation course to prepare them for life in their new homeland, covering issues such as schooling, healthcare and employment.
“I want to present something positive. I want people to think of me as a Muslim who has something positive to give."
On arrival they are received by local resettlement agencies, which provide accommodation and financial assistance for an initial period of three to four months, as well as language courses and help finding work.
Abdel Moein and Fatima anticipate some initial challenges settling in, but say they are determined to integrate as quickly as possible into their new lives. “Everything will be different there. It will be hard at first, and we all need to learn the language. But we will work hard, and we will adapt,” said Abdel Moein.
Fatima wants to assure the people who have concerns about the refugee resettlement programme. “We have fled Syria because of the war and the problems there. We’re not looking for trouble. We just want to live in peace and safety.”
Abdel Moein voices his wife’s reassurance, and says he wants to belong and give back to the community hosting him.
“I want to present something positive. I want people to think of me as a Muslim who has something positive to give. This will help change the perception they have about us.”
The family is now in the United States.