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01/25/2016 11:12 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2016

Refugees Discuss Most Difficult Part Of Living In America

Fred Hayes via Getty Images

Mostafa Kanjou loved his life in Syria. His family owned the profitable Kanjou Bakery and Kanjou Furniture businesses in the city of Homs, located in Syria’s largest province.

“It's a beautiful city,” Kanjou remembers, sitting on the green lawn of his family’s new apartment in Pomona, California. “It has a very moderate weather in the summer and in the winter. The people there are known for their sense of humor.”

Mostafa worked in the family business, designing luxury bedroom and living room furniture for a well-off clientele. He was a talented craftsman and proud of his work. He served his years of mandatory military duty in the Syrian Army without complaint. He bought a comfortable home in an upper-middle class neighborhood and married a beautiful girl from a reputable family. They had two daughters who inherited his wife's deep, black eyes.

Life was good, but Kanjou believed it could be even better. So when the momentum of the Arab Spring hit Homs in March 2011, Kanjou joined thousands of Syrians who took to the streets to march for change. He had seen the success of the protests in Tunisia and believed Syria could achieve that same result. He believed his government would listen to its people.

But Mostafa Kanjou was badly mistaken.

“I saw with my own eyes the killing of the civilians who were protesting and calling for change from the police force and the military force,” he says, his bright blue eyes filled with intensity. “They were brutally shot right in front of my eyes.”

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

As of September 2015, only 1,500 Syrian refugees had been accepted into the United States since the start of the Syrian War. This number represented .03 percent of the nearly 4 million refugees who had fled Syria since the conflict began in 2011, and stood in stark contrast to the 800,000 refugees that Germany pledged to take in. Under mounting pressure, the Obama administration announced in September that 10,000 Syrians will be allowed entry to the United States in 2016.

According to the White House, incoming Syrian refugees face the most stringent level of security checks of any category of traveler to the United States, including the involvement of the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense.

This process has become even more rigorous in the wake of the Paris attacks on November 13 that left 130 people dead and the San Bernardino mass shooting on December 2 that killed another 14 people. These incidents resulted in a massive backlash against allowing refugees to enter the U.S., particularly Muslims from Syria and Iraq. After the Paris attacks, 31 U.S. governors protested the admission of Syrian refugees into their states. On November 19, the U.S. House of Representatives easily passed a bill that would suspend the program allowing Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the U.S. until key national security agencies certify that they do not pose a national security risk. The backlash has prompted additional reviews of the refugee screening process.

The Kanjous were one of the lucky families that made it through the screening process and were accepted as American refugees in September 2015. They, like many others, endured a long and arduous journey to get to U.S. soil. But they now face a new challenge: navigating a complex network of government and nonprofit organizations responsible for overseeing the refugee resettlement process.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, the process of refugee resettlement varies by state. Some depend on state-administered resettlement resources, while others utilize public-private partnerships or the Wilson-Fish program, an alternative to traditional state-administered refugee resettlement programs for providing cash and medical assistance and social services to refugees. For these refugees, the process of navigating these programs can often be the greatest challenge they face in their resettlement process.

Since arriving in the United States, with the help of local nonprofit organizations, Kanjou and his family have moved out of temporary housing into an apartment. Kanjou has secured a job as a construction worker, along with healthcare and benefits. His daughters are enrolled in the local school. But according to the family, the refugee resettlement process in the U.S. has not provided the help and support they hoped for.

“Unfortunately these agencies are treating us are pretty badly because they penalize us for any minor thing,” Kanjou says. “Any paperwork they don't have or any tiny mistake and they will deduct from our financial benefits. That really interrupts the development of our rebuilding process.”

But despite the challenges, Kanjou remains positive about his family’s future.

“I need to work on mastering the communication skills. I'm also having problems with the transportation because of my job. On the bus it takes two hours each way just to get to my work but these are things we're working on and eventually… it's just a matter of time,” he says. “I'm hoping in three years I will be working for myself and I'll be my own contractor.”

The Kanjous' Journey

Despite the rising violence in Homs in March 2011, Kanjou continued protesting. One evening, his family received a surprise visit from the Syrian government’s police and military. They entered Kanjou’s home without permission and claimed they were searching for weapons and revolutionary materials.

“I didn't like the way they burst into our house so I argued with them,” Kanjou recalls.

In response, he was dragged from his home in front of his crying wife and family and taken to prison, where he was held by Military Intelligence Services. “My oldest daughter was 2 years old my youngest was 2 months old when they arrested me,” Kanjou remembers. “My mother and my wife were crying and begging the police not to take me. My family told the police I did not do anything but they did not to care. They just took me and that was it.”

His family received no information about his whereabouts or if he would be released. Even today, Kanjou refuses to divulge the location of his captivity for fear of retribution against him or his family.

Kanjou spent 45 days in a three-meter-by-three-meter cell he shared with 25 other men. There were no beds or toilets. The guards tortured and humiliated Kanjou and the other inmates, insulting their families, withholding their mail, starving them and beating them.

To this day, Kanjou doesn’t like to talk about his time in jail. “You don't want to know what happened,” Kanjou says quietly. He runs his hand through his thinning red hair. “It was continuous beating, continuous cursing. Sometimes you would not get any food for one to two days. They would dump ice-cold water on our heads.”

Forty-five days later, he was released. “I was worried that I would be there for a while because I know for sure some people did not even get out,” he says with relief. “But they did not prove anything against me so they had to let me go after 45 days.”

Mahmoud Tarifi, a chair of the board of the Islamic Center of Claremont (ICC), an organization that serves the needs of Muslims in Pomona, Claremont, and surrounding communities, has grown close to the Kanjou family since their arrival in the United States and is familiar with Kanjou’s story. “They let him out because they had nothing against him,” Tarifi explains. “He simply was participating in the demonstration and at that time the killing was not as much as it is today. Eventually they thought that was enough punishment and hopefully he will not demonstrate and and they let him go.”

Kanjou rushed home to his family and they left Homs for Damascus four days later. After spending one month in Damascus, Kanjou knew that the war would soon take over the entire country. “There was bombardment and rocket fire and it became a dangerous to remain in the city,” he explains. “I was worried about my life and my family- my wife, my very young children- so it was time for me to save my life and my family’s life and move on.”

Kanjou decided to go to Jordan where his cousin could help him find work and a room to rent. He wanted to establish himself before bringing his wife and daughters into a new country. So he left his family in Damascus, packed a single suitcase and boarded a bus.

The ride from Damascus to Jordan is normally a four-hour trip but it took Kanjou 24 hours to reach Jordan because of military checkpoints that stranded the passengers for hours along the way. “At one point in particular I remember when [the Syrian military] took all the young men and they just started smacking them around, yelling at them. And you have to take it if you want to continue on the trip,” he recalls.

Kanjou spent four months in Jordan and then sent for his family. His wife and daughters were turned away at the border, so Kanjou snuck back into Syria and convinced the border guards to allow them to cross safely. Once in Jordan, as required, they registered as refugees with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

At this point, the bureaucracy of a global community attempting to deal with an unmanageable refugee crisis took over.

The Kanjous spent three years living and working in Jordan. One by one, their relatives escaped Syria and joined them in their tiny apartment. Kanjou sheltered and provided for his family.

One day, Kanjou received a call from the United Nations. They offered his family the opportunity to permanently relocate to Sweden. “I don’t know anything about it,” he remembers thinking. “I know it's cold in Sweden.” Well-established in Jordan, and hoping to eventually return to Syria, Kanjou declined.

Several months later, the UNHCR reached out again with a second offer. Relocation to the United States. This time, Kanjou accepted. “I had given up hope of returning to Syria,” he explains.

The UNHCR offered to relocate Kanjou’s parents along with his family. But Kanjou’s father still hoped he could return to the country in which he had lived his entire life. “He did want to start a whole new life in a different country,” says Tarifi. “He said he’ll either go back to Syria or live in Jordan.”

Kanjou was filled with mixed emotions. “I was happy because I wanted a better life for my family. I wanted a better future and education for my children,” he says. “At the same time it was sad because I knew we were leaving behind the country that we were born in for a place that is far away.”

But there was another important factor driving Kanjou’s decision to bring his family to America. His 5-year-old daughter, Mays, suffers from a liver enlargement and needs a transplant. Now settled in the U.S., she has an appointment with Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles in March, 2016. “That was a plus for me to come to the United States because I know she will receive the medical attention that she needs at a hospital here,” Kanjou says.

Tarifi is unsure why the Kanjous received two offers for resettlement from the U.N. but he believes it could be because of Mays’ health condition and Kanjou’s experience being tortured by the Syrian government. According to the Department of State’s website, “the Administration’s emphasis is on admitting the most vulnerable Syrians -- particularly survivors of violence and torture, those with severe medical conditions, and women and children -- in a manner that is consistent with our national security.” The Kanjous met all three criteria.

The Kanjous went through a 13-month vetting process with the United Nations and U.S. intelligence agencies. They completed an application for refugee status, background checks, interviews, biometric security checks, health examinations and acculturation classes before they were accepted into the United States as refugees on September 2, 2015.

Refugee Bureaucracy

Despite the Kanjou’s newly acquired refugee status, their troubles were far from over. Once a family has been granted refugee status by the United Nations, the International Organization for Migration books their travel. But the family must pay for its plane tickets to the U.S.

“The government will pay for the ticket but the families have to reimburse the government, which is often quite a lot if you're a family of five or six,” says Sheik Suhail Mulla, the interim executive director of Access California Services, an Anaheim-based nonprofit organization that supports Muslim and Arab-Americans, refugees, and immigrants in times of struggle or transition. “It is $1,500 to $2,000 a plane ticket coming from some places.”

But many refugees like the Kanjous flee Syria with little more than the clothes on their back. Unable to purchase their own airline tickets, these incoming refugees begin their new lives in debt to the U.S. government.

“Most of the refugees who come here, they don't come directly from their cities,” explains Hanadi Alwan, a member of the Syrian American Council (SAC), a grassroots Syrian-American organization advocating for freedom and democracy in Syria. “They spend 2-3 years in the surrounding countries and they spend all their money there.”

Once the refugees land in America, the government turns over responsibility to resettlement organizations like the International Refugee Committee (IRC). These agencies are U.S. government contractors who are tasked with helping the refugees navigate the first three months of their new lives.

“The resettlement agencies will pick up the refugee individuals or families from the airport and their responsibility is to find them housing, at least temporary, and to get help them get signed up with basic benefits,” says Mulla. “They now have legal entitlement through the government for health benefits, medical, public assistance, some cash aid. [The agencies] will also help them get their kids enrolled in school and just get them set up, get their basic functions established, here on the America continent.”

Each family member receives a one-time cash gift of $1,100 upon arrival in the U.S. After three months of working with the IRC, the refugees are expected to have used their stipends to arrange for temporary housing.

The Kanjou family moved into the apartment of a Jordanian friend after landing in California. Four days later, a representative from the resettlement agency took them to the American Inn and Suites in Claremont where they lived, cramped in one dingy room, for the next four weeks.

On the second night, representatives from the agency came to visit the family. “They introduced themselves,” says Kanjou. “They brought a translator with them and they told us there are certain things that we had to do, such as going to get MediCal, going to social services, going to the welfare office, which we did with them.”

Often, the process of navigating government agencies is inefficient and difficult. Mahmoud Tarifi, from the Islamic Center of Claremont, recalls an incident in which another refugee family went to get routine blood tests at a local health clinic.

“The IRC officer told me that the clinic has a translator and to just drop them off,” Tarifi explains. “So we did. And the next thing you know there was no translator and I was getting calls saying ‘We cannot understand what they're asking us to do.’” Neither the IRC nor the health clinic took responsibility for the lapse, leaving the family unable to communicate with the health care workers.

This type of bureaucratic bungling sometimes results in more serious consequences for families like the Kanjous. The government provides refugees with a monthly stipend for their first eight months in the U.S. Kanjou recently received a letter instructing him to send in his daughter’s immunization forms or face a penalty. He immediately complied, but still saw his monthly stipend reduced by $250.

According to Mulla from Access California Services, both the amount and the duration of these stipends are already insufficient. “That cash assistance is only for 8 months,” he explains. “Once it’s up you're supposed to know how to speak the language, be employed, and be able to take care of yourself and your own your needs without the government providing any sort of assistance.”

Many community members believe that this is a nearly-impossible task. Once government and agency support expires, refugees face the threat of being left stranded and unable to navigate the complexities of the American system. In response, many local organizations have rallied to provide support to incoming refugees and fill the void left by insufficient government assistance.

Access California offers an array of services to refugees, ranging from financial assistance to English language classes to job placement support to healthcare and social services assistance. The nonprofit addresses many of the logistical problems refugees encounter in the U.S.

Other organizations like the Islamic Center of Claremont provide more minute services to the refugees. Many of these are mundane day-to-day tasks that slip through the cracks of the multiple organizations contributing to the resettlement effort, but without which the refugees could not survive. Mahmoud Tarifi dedicates every waking moment to helping families like the Kanjous successfully transition into American life.

Kanjou has yet to get his driver’s license. So Tarifi drives the Kanjous to the grocery store. He takes them to their doctor’s appointments and social service visits. Because they speak no English, Tarifi translates their paperwork so they can fill out endless required forms and documents. He helps Kanjou and his wife communicate with their daughter’s teachers. He introduced the Kanjous to their local mosque and welcomed them into the Islamic community in Claremont. It was Tarifi, not the resettlement agencies or the U.S. government, who helped Kanjou secure a construction job and begin paying taxes.

According to Tarifi, the government is not doing nearly enough to help the refugees, which is why the burden falls on nonprofit organizations and members of the community. “I think the refugee package and the refugee status should be run in a unique fashion where the refugee would have guaranteed benefits and shelter for a limited amount of time,” he says.

Tarifi believes that if the government provided more comprehensive support for the refugees, they would have a much easier time assimilating to the U.S. and getting back on their feet. “These people are not used to government assistance and they’ve been taking their care of themselves and their families for years and years,” he explains. “They feel embarrassed asking for help, whether it's from the government, nonprofits or anyone else. They’re dignified people. They’re independent. They want to make their own living.”

Alwan, from the Syrian American Council, agrees that most Syrian refugees coming into the United States do not want to live on charity or government handouts. “If you ask any Syrian man what he needs, he will tell you he wants a job,” she says.

California Love

For now, refugees like Kanjou must rely on a combination of government services, local organizations and generous individuals to build a new life in the United States. He and his family recently relocated from the American Inn and Suites to a two-bedroom apartment in nearby Pomona. The day they moved in, the Kanjous were flooded with gifts and donations of furniture, flatware, clothes and food. “The best part of America is that the people are very kind,” Kanjou says. “I know my neighbors are good neighbors, nice people.”

Any items Kanjou did not receive from his neighbors came from the Interfaith Council, an alliance between the Islamic Center and local churches and synagogues. Tarifi regularly receives truckloads of furniture and other donations intended for refugees like Kanjou. 

Alwan has also been touched by the generosity of Americans trying to help the newly-arrived refugees. “An older lady knocked on my door and she had two beautiful boxes with very nice clothing neatly folded,” Alwan recalls. “She told me she was a refugee herself in Germany. She really cared, you know?”

Despite help from the community, Kanjou’s first months in America are still wrought with challenges. “I would like the government to know we are refugees here and that I am paying $1,300 for two bedrooms here, which is too much for someone who is a refugee, who doesn't speak the language, who is searching to begin his life, support his family, find work,” he says.

Kanjou urges the government to consider providing guaranteed Section 8, low-income housing for incoming refugees. “That would be part of their package,” he says. “They would get low income housing and that would definitely help them to move forward." 

Kanjou may have escaped Syria, but he has not escaped the war. Last month, he received a phone call informing him that one of his relatives had been abducted by an extremist group and was being held for a ransom of $3,000. Kanjou’s family pooled their funds to secure a safe release.

Kanjou is trying to leave his past behind. He commutes two hours each way to work by bus. He works six days a week and recently received a promotion from laborer to carpenter. On Sundays, Kanjou volunteers at the Islamic Center of Claremont. 

He has not learned English, but announces that he is picking up Spanish from his coworkers at the construction site. “Hola. Como estas?” he asks proudly, showing off his new linguistic skills.

He answers his own question carefully and deliberately. “I’m muy bien.” 

This post is part of a partnership between The Huffington Post and USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism.

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