AURORA, Ill. — All was quiet as Rabia Haj Ali walked through this Chicago suburb last week. Pausing to feel the warmth of the sun on her skin, she watched as the only other moving presence — a small black squirrel — lolloped across the neatly cut lawns.
For Rabia, the silence felt unnerving. In her Syrian hometown of Daraa, a quiet street signaled danger and the need to move inside. “It’s hard to believe you’re safe when the brain is still on high alert,” she said. “This takes some getting used to.”
Two months ago, 36-year old Rabia and her family had never heard of Aurora. And yet here they were, the state’s newest arrivals in a nationwide resettlement program that last month reached its goal of welcoming 10,000 Syrian refugees this fiscal year.
The issue of what to do about Syria’s refugee crisis — the worst globally since World War II — takes center stage Monday and Tuesday in New York as leaders gather at the U.N. General Assembly for the first global summit on migration.
After a slow start, the pace of resettlement across 231 U.S. municipalities now averages 2,200 Syrian refugees a month. On Thursday, the White House signaled that rate was set to increase in the new fiscal cycle, as the United States prepares to admit an additional 110,000 refugees, including but not only Syrians, in the year beginning Oct. 1.
But while refugee advocates welcome that commitment, in states like Illinois, the increase in numbers has put pressure on resettlement groups, leaving some families without formal housing on arrival, even as staff and volunteers work overtime to make the entry of large and often traumatized families run as smoothly as possible.
After spending their first week in a small house with their cousins — already a family of seven — the seven Haj Alis are now living in temporary accommodation while resettlement agencies search for a permanent home.
“We want to welcome people and to place them on a path to thrive. But our willingness to help and our capacity are two very different things,” said Melineh Kano, the executive director of Refugee One, one of the main groups working with refugees in the Chicago area.
Rooms in the Haj Ali household are spartan but clean — Rabia makes sure of it — and are filled mostly with toys and books donated by the community.
The five children are learning English and getting used to life in different schools across the city. For Boshra, the youngest at 8, it’s a bewildering experience. As the only Arabic speaker in her school, she understands little, but her teachers are using an array of translation devices to help her settle in.
Shy with dark brown eyes like her mother’s, Boshra shoots out of the school gates as she sees her parents approach. She has something to report. “They’re calling it an ‘iPad,’ ” she whispered to Rabia, cocking an eyebrow as she sounded out the syllables.
“None of them find this easy, but we know this is the best place for our children,” said Rabia, speaking through a translator. “These schools will give them a chance we could never give them once the war started. That is worth everything.”
The acceptance of families like the Haj Alis has become a campaign issue, and Donald Trump insists that the United States knows little about the refugees it accepts. “We don’t know where these people come from,” he told supporters Wednesday night in Canton, Ohio. “We don’t know if they have love or hate in their heart, and there’s no way to tell.”
Rabia countered with a laugh that, “If there’s a detail about me the Americans don’t know, then I probably don’t know it myself.”
To qualify for resettlement in the United States, a refugee must first be identified by the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR as one of the most vulnerable cases among the 4.8 million to have been registered since the Syrian crisis began in 2011.
Next, refugee specialists with the Departments of State and Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center collect basic biographical information, running names, birth dates and fingerprints through databases, and assess the plausibility of the background story.
Only then will the family make it to a face-to-face interview in either Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey, where most Syrian refugees live. Three years after fleeing Daraa with just a set of house keys and the clothes on their backs, the Haj Alis’ interview took place amid the tightest security they had ever seen. “It was like they were scared of us,” said Rabia’s husband, Fouad. “It was funny, really, because that whole time we were scared of them, too.”
For months, President Obama’s promise to admit 10,000 refugees this year had seemed like a distant dream, as tight vetting procedures stemmed the monthly flow to the low hundreds. But the numbers increased in May, after the administration beefed up resources devoted to resettlement.
Crucial to this effort was the establishment of a temporary “surge” center in the Jordanian capital, Amman, that helped cut the average acceptance period from 24 to 12 months, interviewing about 600 Syrians each day.
An interview can last from dawn to dusk, breaking only for a lunch of rice, beans and Coca Cola, with four separate screening panels.
“They asked us everything,” said a former Syrian restaurant owner from the capital, Damascus, who now lives two blocks from the Haj Ali family in Aurora. “They asked about my politics and my personal life. They asked about life in Syria and of course they asked why I left.”
The answers are carved deep into his body, a patchwork of fresh skin still knitting over deep wounds sustained during torture. He asked that he not be identified by name as he still has relatives in Damascus.
Arrested in November 2012 for serving rebel fighters at his Damascus restaurant — “our food smelled like home,” he remembers — the man spent nine months in Branch 235, a notorious military intelligence-run prison where thousands of Syrians have died through abuse or starvation. A local prisoner amnesty secured his eventual release.
The resettlement of Syrians presents a depth of medical challenges that is unusual, even among new refugees. Local doctors discovered that some of the Syrians still carried shrapnel in their bodies; less visible but more pervasive is the trauma.
Nights in Branch 235 were sleepless, the prisoners packed so tight that they had to tessellate their knees as they crouched. The Syrian’s hands shook as he described the dying moments of three prisoners close by in the darkness — two had succumbed to their injuries, the third to madness.
“We see it in everyone, and that is going to take a long time to heal,” said Suzanne Akhras Sahloul, the founder and president of the Syrian Community Network, a grass-roots initiative staffed by Syrians that has stepped in to fill the linguistic and cultural gaps that larger agencies are unable to address. “These people have spent a long time surrounded by communities where PTSD has become normal. The challenge now is getting them into therapy and allowing them to start talking through the nightmare.”
For the Syrian families, there’s also a determination to make their new lives work. They’ve started English lessons, the men have applied for jobs, and the bus timetable is slowly but surely being memorized.
But Syria will be preserved in the small customs. Over the weekend, that meant baking the coconut and cardamom biscuits that would always fill the restaurant owner’s Damascus home for the Muslim religious festival of Eid. His wife has adapted the family recipe to fit the ingredients they found at a 7-Eleven. “They’re good, aren’t they?” she said. “I can work with this.”
Grabbing one on his way out to the evening shift at a photocopying firm, the former Damascus resident paused at the sight of three sticky notes with his children’s names — Judi, Batool and Mohammed — felt-tipped carefully in big English letters. Their prospects are some compensation for the sheer monotony of his own work, standing on a production line turning pages for hours on end.
“You know, they’re in school for the first time since we left Syria,” he said. “Life is hard here for us, their parents, but for them this chance is everything. ”