Syrians who have fled the brutal war in their country for the United States know that more of their compatriots are coming. And that worries them.
Refugees who arrived in recent months worry that life in America is daunting, with cultural and financial hurdles that sometimes seem too hard to overcome. Long-established residents and more recently exiled dissidents worry that a flood of new arrivals will fuel the anti-Muslim backlash already creeping into American politics.
And all three groups worry that no one, not even President Obama, seems to know how to solve the four-year-old conflict, now escalating with Russian airstrikes, that has decimated Syria and led to the seemingly endless flow of refugees.
“I am happy we are safe here now, but I can do nothing,” said Ibrahim al-Farookh, 37, who was brought to a Baltimore apartment complex with his family seven months ago after losing his eyesight to illness in a refugee settlement in Lebanon.
“I dream of going home again, but it is not realistic,” Farookh said, speaking in Arabic. “I have lost my country and my dreams.”
A former mason and father of seven, Farookh beams when his wife places their newborn son in his arms. He has learned to feel his way around their cramped apartment, but he speaks no English and cannot work, drive or read a bus schedule. On some Fridays, a friend with a car takes Farookh to a mosque. Otherwise, he mostly feels trapped and useless.
“For me, everything is blackness,” he said.
Farookh and his family are among about 1,900 Syrians who have been flown to the United States by the U.N. refugee agency and resettled since 2011, when a popular uprising in their homeland was brutally quashed by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
About 19,000 Syrians in refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have been approved by the United Nations for resettlement in the United States, but the process can take many months because of security checks and other issues. However, there is an annual ceiling on the total number of refugees allowed into the United States, which Obama recently raised to 10,000 in response to the Syrian crisis.
About 20 Syrian families have been placed in Baltimore this year, several in the nondescript brick complex off Moravia Road where the Farookhs live. They are far better off than they would be at home, or attempting dangerous land or sea crossings to get from the Middle East to Europe. But they struggle to find jobs, pay the bills, and manage shopping and other chores.
The families are flown here and given housing, food stamps, insurance and other assistance. After eight months, the cash benefits stop and the families are required to support themselves. And after a longer grace period, the families must begin paying back their airfare from abroad — as much as $1,000 per man, woman and child.
“These policies are put in place to make sure the refugees become independent and self-sufficient as soon as possible,” said Naomi Steinberg, the director of Refugee Council USA, which represents most major refugee resettlement agencies. “They are given time and extra help to get on their feet, but eventually they have to stand on their own.”
The Syrians here help each other in emergencies and gather for Muslim holidays, but several said they feel isolated and uneasy in the low-income, mostly African American neighborhood where they have been placed. Communication with neighbors is difficult, given language and cultural barriers. One family said their teenage daughter, who wears a headscarf and loose gown to school, was harassed repeatedly by a boy who lives nearby. They called the police but said nothing was resolved, and they have not let her go outside alone since.
Linda Zomach and Mohammed al-Halaby fled from Syria to Lebanon in 2012 after the death of their week-old son, who was in the neonatal unit of a hospital when it was bombed and caught fire. The baby died of smoke inhalation.
Now, after nine months in Baltimore, they watch the worsening news from Syria with dismay. Their five surviving children are learning English in school, and Halaby has found work as a truck driver, but the demoralized parents wonder whether they will ever fully adapt to their new country.
“People back in Syria think this is going to be paradise, but it’s hard,” said Zomach, 33. “You have to work and work just to pay the rent and electricity. This is also a poor area.
“Some people have feelings against Muslims, and that makes it worse,” she added. “If it were up to me, my advice to other refugees would be not to come.”
For middle-class Syrian dissidents who fled after the failed uprising of 2011, the days are filled with purposeful activity — organizing rallies, lobbying officials, posting on social media — all aimed at spotlighting the plight of Syrians back home and influencing U.S. policy in the region.
These emigres, most of whom are applicants for political asylum, belong to various exile and advocacy groups that don’t always trust one another. Their suspicions mirror the fault lines in a chaotic conflict back home that includes moderate and jihadist armed opposition forces, a secular dictatorship and an extremist militia — the Islamic State — that is trying to take over the region.
But the dissidents are united in their hatred for the Assad regime, and they share a growing disillusionment with Obama for failing to dislodge him. They want the United States to accept more refugees, but they insist that the humanitarian crisis in Syria is the product of a deeper problem that only the West can fix.
“If Washington focused on the root cause instead of the symptoms, the human tide would stop,” declared Kassem Eid, 29, an activist in the District who survived near-starvation and chemical attacks in Syria before fleeing in 2012. He has since become a high-profile advocate, testifying before Congress and the United Nations.
“What we need is justice, not revenge,” Eid said. “We need to protect civilians first. If the U.S. just creates a no-fly zone over Syria, then people would feel safe, stay home and start to rebuild.”
Very few of these dissidents have been approved for political asylum, and most have been waiting more than a year to learn their fates. Like the homeless refugees in Lebanon awaiting clearance to enter the United States, they are subject to painstaking scrutiny by government agencies looking for any sign that they are Islamist extremists. They are not allowed to work while their asylum applications are pending. Some end up sleeping on friends’ couches and borrowing money to eat.
“My life here is on hold,” said Abu Nidal, 36, an opposition activist who fled Syria in 2013 and now volunteers with a D.C. group called People Demand Change, organizing aid and development projects in Syria.
“We are human beings who fled a war, but we have to convince an asylum officer we are not terrorists,” Nidal said. “If my case is rejected, I have no place to go.”
Tariq Azem, a former information technology expert in Damascus, is in a better position. He too fled Syria after the failed 2011 uprising, and he too is waiting for his asylum petition to be approved. But with support from relatives in the United States, he was able to obtain temporary legal status and open several pizza parlors in Northern Virginia.
Still, Azem said, he and his wife have endured endless frustrations trying to obtain crucial documents and services, including driver’s licenses for themselves and health insurance for their children, as well as college transcripts from Syria to prove their academic credentials.
“Every place you go seems to have different rules and policies,” Azem said. “Some of them want us to get documents stamped by the Embassy of Syria — but there is no embassy here anymore.”
With Russia’s recent military intervention in support of Assad’s forces, Azem predicted “a long and bloody war. We have to focus on our future here, but that’s a battle too.”
In the kitchen of his gracious home in Vienna, Va., anesthesiologist Hisham Naji, 68, served tea and cake to a visitor one recent morning and recounted a brief, chilling history of the Assad regime. Its grisly highlight was the 2011 torture and killing of a peaceful demonstrator whose body, Naji said, was found drilled with holes and missing its fingernails and genitals.
Naji, who grew up in what he called “a beautiful and tolerant democracy,” left Syria long before that incident and the current unrest. Like thousands of other middle-class Syrians, he immigrated to the United States in the 1970s, after a coup in which Hafez al-Assad, father of the current ruler, seized power.
He built a quiet professional and family life in the Virginia suburbs but has remained involved in Syria’s humanitarian crisis as an official of the Syrian American Medical Society.
In 2013, Naji traveled to an opposition-held part of Syria to perform surgeries in a clandestine clinic set up in an underground garage.
“We had no anesthesia or electricity,” he recalled. “They were dropping barrel bombs full of shrapnel and heavy metal and dynamite. You can imagine the injuries they inflict.”
Most successful Syrian emigres say they feel pity for the new wave of refugees, but their own stories of escape are a world apart. Ayoubi Mazen, an architect in Falls Church, Va., left his homeland after graduating first in his university class in 1970. Today, he said, 67 percent of medical students from that class are living in the United States.
“It was total brain drain, but it was an orderly exodus. We left by choice,” Mazen said. “What is happening now is chaos. These new people are from a different social status, and they are driven by bombs. The very word ‘refugee’ hurts you.”
Naji has friends and family among the latest wave of refugees. Just last week, he recounted, one of his nephews managed to reach Greece after a hazardous boat trip from Turkey.
He worries about a backlash from Americans who fear Islamist extremists will use the refugee tide to breach U.S. shores — a scenario that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump suggested the other day to an enthusiastic crowd.
“The people of Syria are moderate and educated. They have no room for ISIS,” Naji said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “They are running from death, but Assad is the cause. . . . Obama could get rid of him with one phone call. The day he is removed, ISIS will be gone.”