For refugees, settling in America can be hard
Baltimore - Mohammad al-Halabi and his family resettled from Lebanon to the unfamiliar urban setting of Baltimore in Maryland. They are among some 1,500 Syrian refugees accepted into the United States since civil war began in Syria in 2011.
Thrilled to be out of harm’s way, Halabi and his family now tackle the issues that face millions of Americans who struggle with poverty and the challenges that accompany it: inadequate public transportation, unsafe neighbourhoods and surviving mostly off fast-food.
Also, like poor Americans, the newly arrived refugees must get by on meagre public assistance and scramble to find work in an increasingly fluid employment terrain that seems to favour only those with entrepreneurial impulses.
Many refugees must do all of this while learning English and trying to keep up with their children’s immersion in an alien education system.
The United States recently raised the number of Syrian refugees it will resettle in the next 12 months from 10,000 to 15,000, an increase that came in the midst of Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II.
Pope Francis, during his visit to the United States, encouraged a more welcoming sentiment for Syrian refugees, prompting mayors of 18 US cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Baltimore, to write a letter to US President Barack Obama urging him to accept more Syrian refugees and offering to settle them in their cities.
But, although the United States remains a top destination for many refugees and migrants in search of a better life, the monetary benefits and support that the US government gives them pale in comparison with what some European countries offer.
Refugees in the United States are expected to become self-sufficient within 90 days, regardless of skill set and language abilities, according to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), one of several organisations that work directly with the US government to resettle refugees.
“It’s tough to become self-sufficient in such a short time but, on the other hand, the US wants refugees to become part of American life,” said Lucy Carrigan of the IRC.
Because newcomers usually start at the poverty line, housing poses a challenge. “We look for affordable housing in areas that are also safe, which is a challenge,” Ruben Chandrasekar, who heads the IRC in Baltimore, said. “And we look for housing in close proximity to a full-service grocery store.”
One of the terrible aspects of poverty in America is the phenomenon of “food deserts”, where markets do not exist in low-income neighbourhoods, forcing residents to sustain themselves on fast-food.
Nearly one in four children lives below the poverty line in the United States, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty. And it is common for these children to eat little or no fresh fruit or vegetables. First lady Michelle Obama has devoted her time at the White House to reach these populations and combat the child obesity epidemic that plagues food deserts.
Another problem poor Americans face is inefficient public transportation outside of busy urban centres such as New York or Washington. Where the Halabis live, it is not unusual to wait two hours for the bus to arrive, making it impossible to rely on it for commuting to work. Some claim this contributes to a higher unemployment rate among the poor.
Nonetheless, refugees often climb out of poverty and integrate into American life with success rates that are the envy of policymakers in Europe, where newcomers can find themselves ghettoised and marginalised well into their second or third generations.
Halabi, who arrived in Baltimore in late 2014, is a somewhat typical success story of integration despite a minor back injury. A carpenter by trade, he quickly discovered a “better way” to make a living in the United States: pizza delivery by car.
“It’s easier on my back. I just sit there and drive and I like it,” Halabi told The Arab Weekly during a visit to his modest home in Baltimore. He is self-sufficient, generating enough income to cover household expenses, repay the refugee resettlement programme for his family’s airfare from Lebanon and pay off a small loan he took to buy his used car. He expects his situation to improve after he joins global transport service Uber.
“But I must have my US driver’s licence for one year before they accept me as a driver,” said Halabi.
Not all newcomers to the United States adjust so well. Abu Adnan, who was resettled with his pregnant wife and their five children in May from Jordan into the same housing complex as Halabi, appeared more disillusioned than optimistic.
“I didn’t know I would have to work like a mule here. I worked like a mule in Jordan but at least there I would come home and find my mother and siblings and the rest of the family. Here? We’re all alone,” he said.
He lamented the life he left behind when he and his family fled to Jordan in 2013 from their hometown of Deraa in Syria. He blames “America and the West” for the war in Syria. He wants to return to Jordan, he said, despite the hardships he faced there.
Chandrasekar explained that refugees typically go through a difficult phase before they begin to acclimatise to their new reality.
“The initial two or three months, people are happy to be out of danger, despite all the unknowns,” Chandrasekar said. “Then, most people come to the harsh reality that while the US is welcoming to refugees, they’re expected to get on their feet relatively quickly, which means they have to get a job and do things they perhaps weren’t accustomed to doing. Typically, five to six months after arrival, they go through a very tough period.”
He added that at about the ten-month mark, newcomers typically begin to take pride in standing on their feet and integrating into society.
In some ways Abu Adnan, who is a butcher by trade, captures the frustration of many Syrians who belonged to a stable middle or lower-middle class at home but quickly discovered that their skill set was not competitive abroad.
The Syrian economy was modernising but remained mostly an “old world economy”, where the backbone of the country is an amalgamation of small, family-owned businesses, inherited from one generation to the next, as opposed to publicly traded ones that train and hire large numbers of people.
Like Halabi, Abu Adnan owned a small shop that supported his family and his wife took pride in the fact that she did not have to work outside the home to supplement the family’s income. Now, she dreads the idea of having to work, explaining that she barely attended school.
“I don’t even know how to unlock the letter,” she said, referring to her illiteracy.
But statistics appear to be in favour of Adnan and his wife, perhaps precisely because immigrants typically come from “old world economies”, where entrepreneurial spirit often ensured survival.
“In Maryland, we have a foreign-born population of 12%, yet they own 24% of small businesses in the state. Immigrants are entrepreneurial and able to save money,” said Chandrasekar.
He added that IRC recently launched an initiative to help refugees purchase their first home, a major achievement in the pursuit of the “American Dream”.
Part of the “American Dream” is the expectation that life will be better for the next generation, and second-generation immigrants in the United States typically do better than their refugee parents.
For Abu Adnan, this realisation seems to have set in despite his frustrations. Asked if he was serious about returning to Jordan now that his children were enrolled in school and his family is on track to becoming citizens, he paused for a moment and shook his head.
“Yes, I know,” he said. “My children would have no future in Jordan but here, they have a future.”