It is still dark when Mostafa Hassoun leaves his home on Main Street and catches a ride with his roommate, past rows of cozy restaurants and sailing souvenir boutiques to a locked Annapolis mall. To ward off the cold, he wears a sweater, jeans and a down vest he bought in Turkey.
In the shopping center’s empty silence, he spends three hours methodically making deli sandwiches — a job both reminiscent of and completely different from one he held in Turkey, slapping together sandwiches of ground beef and flatbread for fellow Syrians in a chaotic refugee camp.
This is the United States where Hassoun, a 23-year-old from a Syrian farming hamlet, is trying to build a life. It is a place where small-town generosity and kindness collide with the political tensions of a growing xenophobia; where Hassoun, who arrived in July, has found a modest home and modest opportunities just blocks from the mansion occupied by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), one of many U.S. governors who wants to halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees in this country.
Of the more than 4 million people who have fled Syria’s civil war since 2011, Hassoun is among just 2,550 who have made it to the United States. The reception has been both welcoming and fearful.
Maria and Jonathan Ulbricht, a Severna Park couple whose daughter taught Hassoun basic English over Skype while he was in Turkey, welcomed him into their home. Maria helped him find a job bagging groceries at the local Whole Foods and a place to live with a couple of other young men his age — American boys who like basketball and movies. (His landlord, who owns the food kiosk at the mall, offered him the early morning sandwich gig.) Maria hugged him when he felt isolated, wondering how to make life work in a place so completely divergent from everything he ever knew.
“I needed to talk,” he said, recalling his search for English words that he didn’t yet know. “I had so much in my heart — happiness, sadness — I needed to express it.”
As with most Syrians, Hassoun had never planned for this. He had never planned to leave his family or his village of apple trees and olive groves for a strange new world of scheduled friendships, pristine shopping malls and wide interstate highways. He was supposed to go to college in Syria as his sisters had. He was supposed to become an architect.
But the war didn’t give him that option. So he’s here, trying to find his way.
He knew that there would be challenges in entering the United States as a refugee — he would have to find work quickly; he would have to pay the government back for his $928 plane ticket; it would take years to obtain citizenship.
In six months, he has learned to navigate a strange new culture of doctors appointments, paperwork and the quintessential American routine of two jobs and “work, work, work.” He has learned about health insurance — and that he is required to have it. He has learned that in the minds of many Americans, Islam equals the Islamic State extremist group, and Syria — the country he fled — equals terrorism.
“Any new refugees who come to Maryland, I can help them. I can tell them what to do,” he said. “Because now I know.”
One of the first things Hassoun noticed about the United States when he arrived in June was the silence. The roads were orderly, with cars staying in their smooth, marked lanes. The suburbs seemed empty: The Ulbrichts’ neighborhood of tidy brick homes and manicured lawns was so unlike the bustle of his village, Badama, where friends and relatives were always showing up to visit unannounced in the days before anyone knew there was a war coming.
“Where are the people?” Hassoun remembers thinking. “Are they staying in their houses?”
He is deeply uncertain about what this new life will bring.
Just up the street from Hassoun’s apartment at the Maryland State House, Hogan — a highly popular first-term governor — has yet to meet with any Syrian refugees, despite invitations to do so, and has refused to reconsider his decision to oppose their resettlement.
Hassoun doesn’t know much about Hogan. But he knows that Donald Trump, the billionaire who could be the United States’ next president, thinks most Muslims should be banned from entering the country. And he knows that many Americans agree.
A prospective landlord turned him down after learning that he is Syrian.
A police officer stopped him on the street while he was carrying the Free Syrian Army’s flag — a gift, from an American friend, that represents the dream of a free and democratic Syria.
The officer “asked me about the flag and why I came to the United States,” Hassoun recalls. “He said people called him and were afraid that I was a terrorist because of the flag.”
After looking at the government paper that identifies Hassoun as a refugee, and checking his name in a database to see whether he was wanted, the officer did something baffling to Hassoun: He apologized.
Back home, soldiers from the army of President Bashar al-Assad would have killed him for displaying that flag, he said, pantomiming a gun to the head. But the police officer in Annapolis wished him a pleasant day.
In the checkout line at Whole Foods the other day, a woman who noticed Hassoun’s name tag asked whether he was a Muslim. Hassoun, who was raised Muslim, but says he gave up on religion when he saw that prayers couldn’t stop the war, told her he wasn’t.
“Great,” she said. “Don’t be a Muslim, okay?”
That so few strangers seem familiar with the brutality of the war back home — Assad’s barrel bombs, the deaths of roughly a quarter-million people, the flight of 4 million — is deeply frustrating.
“People here only hear about guns and ‘Allahu akbar,’ ” he says.
He tries to talk to them about it.
He tells them about the Arab Spring protests in 2011 that Assad crushed with gunfire, then bombs. He tells them about the Free Syrian Army — the rebel movement that in the past few years has been overshadowed by the fundamentalist and far more powerful Islamic State. He taps on his computer to illustrate his tale through YouTube and pictures for anyone willing to watch and listen.
“This is my car,” he says.
“This is when the army came into my village,” he says, playing a video that shows tanks and armored personnel carriers rolling along a highway that cuts through hills of olive groves.
Hassoun and his family fled to the Turkish border with scores of others from his village when he was 18 years old, two weeks shy of his high school graduation. Since the war began, four of his closest childhood friends have been killed.
After four years in Turkey, including a 15-month screening process of applications and intensive interviews, Hassoun was the only member of his family granted refugee status by the United States. His mother, mentally disabled brother and two sisters — along with one sister’s family — are in Sweden. A third sister is about to move to Germany with her family.
His father remains in Turkey; Hassoun said they are no longer close.
In Annapolis, Hassoun has forged new friendships, discovered good American movies and hopes to restart his education. Through Skype and Facebook, he channels an old reality for which his heart aches but he has few mementos — his mother, his school friends, his village of olive groves and apple trees.
After the sandwich shift one recent Friday, Hassoun went up to the third floor, past the living room where one of his roommates was sprawled in sweatpants, and turned on his computer. Soon, he heard the ring of an online caller, and the tired voice of a 21-year-old friend, thousands of miles away in the battered city of Aleppo.
The friend, a medic, said he had spent the morning pulling civilian bodies from the rubble of a cluster of residential buildings that had been hit by airstrikes.
Who carried out the airstrikes? Hassoun asked him in Arabic. “The skies are crowded with planes,” the friend sighed. “Syrian planes, Russian planes, American planes.” Hassoun laughed at the absurdity of it all.
Two weeks earlier, he had gone to the Ulbrichts’ house to celebrate Thanksgiving. They ate freshly baked pumpkin pie and sat around the fireplace playing cards.
Hassoun didn’t mention that he had awoken the previous morning to learn on Facebook that his cousin Hassan — his age, from the same village — had been killed in Syria.
Outside now, Christmas shoppers and harborgoers strolled in bright sunshine. Soon Hassoun would eat a hurried lunch of prepackaged hummus, tahini and bread. He would contemplate the acceptance letter he had received the day before from Anne Arundel Community College and the bill he had received for his plane ticket.
But he said nothing about any of that to his friend in Aleppo. How do you tell someone who regularly picks through the smoking wreckage of collapsed buildings that you are about to restart your education — or that you’re worried about how to pay for it?
“I tell them it’s hard,” he said of his new life. He leaves it at that.
When Hassoun was younger, he excelled in school, and was ranked first in his province for science at age 13. The son of two lawyers, he dreamed of becoming an architect.
Now he worries that he is too old for college and too poor to pay for it. Working two jobs, he makes $1,100 a month, half of which goes to his rent. His refugee status qualifies him to pay in-state tuition, but the acceptance letter from the community college doesn’t say that, and so once again phone calls — and Maria Ulbricht’s help — will be needed.
It was Ulbricht who struggled early on to explain Hassoun’s status to prospective landlords and employers, showing the I-94 form he had been given by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, explaining that he had no passport, no driver’s license, nothing else to prove who he was.
And it was Ulbricht who told him about health insurance, who told him that he can “do anything” in the United States, and who bought him a bicycle so that he could travel the three miles each way to his job at Whole Foods.
Most nights, Hassoun goes straight home after work. But on this night, he decided to take a detour past the harbor, where rows of Christmas lights strung up among the sailboats and yachts cast glittery reflections on the water — a scene almost, but not quite, like something he used to know.
In Syria, before the war, Hassoun would sneak out at night sometimes and head to the seaside town of Latakia.
He would go down to the beach, alone, and lie on the sand to watch the stars and think about the future, about college, about friends.
“I would dream,” he says.
Earlier versions of this article incorrectly described the estimated 250,000 people who have been killed in Syria’s civil war as civilians. The 250,000 who have died include both civilians and combatants. The article has been corrected.