PRINCE GEORGE’S COUNTY – Ghassan, his wife and their two children fled their home in Syria to Lebanon so they could fly to Egypt in 2012 after two of his brothers disappeared. Ghassan and his family, who chose to withhold their last name, are now living in an apartment in Prince George’s County. They have […]
PRINCE GEORGE’S COUNTY – Ghassan, his wife and their two children fled their home in Syria to Lebanon so they could fly to Egypt in 2012 after two of his brothers disappeared.
Ghassan and his family, who chose to withhold their last name, are now living in an apartment in Prince George’s County. They have to figure out how they will afford food, housing and expenses once they use up stipends from a resettlement agency.
Ghassan said, his father called him around sunset on Dec. 6, 2012, to say another one of his brothers had disappeared. Syrian security officers had taken his brothers.
Security officers, after taking individuals, would try to use their information to find family members as well, said Ahmad, who translated for Ghassan and a Sentinel reporter.
Ghassan’s father told him the best thing for him and his family to do was to leave the country. He and his family woke up before sunrise the next day and drove to Lebanon. They purchased tickets to Egypt. Adjusting to their new home was simplified somewhat because they did not have to learn a new language. But they did not feel safe there.
After living in Egypt for less than a year, the family tried to flee in boats to Europe, but they were discovered.
Thirty minutes after they and others seeking refuge climbed into boats, members of the Egyptian Coast Guard appeared and started shooting, said Naha, Ghassan’s wife, who is 35. The coast guard killed two people and arrested everyone else, including the wives and children, she said. The family remained in jail for a few months.
After that, they contacted the United Nations to request refugee status.
Ghassan said they waited two years to be approved to refugee status. At first they were delayed because Ghassan’s passport expired and they underwent the lengthy vetting process for approval to be refugees. The family was assigned to be refugees in the United States.
The family did not choose to go to the United States. They were assigned there by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
“We’re not here to hurt anyone. We’re here to help … (and for) the same reason as you: a good life for our kids, and we want them to prosper,” Ghassan said.
In November, following the attacks in Paris, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan released a statement requesting no more refugees be brought to Maryland out of concern for the refugees’ backgrounds.
“Following the terrorist attacks on Paris just four days ago, and after careful consideration, I am now requesting that federal authorities cease any additional settlements of refugees from Syria in Maryland until the U.S. government can provide appropriate assurances that refugees from Syria pose no threat to public safety,” Hogan said.
In response, leaders from both Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties wrote statements against Hogan’s decision and in turn said refugees would be welcome.
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker III said Maryland should not try to restrict the access of refugees.
“In our quest to provide security, we must not forgo our principles and ideals as Americans,” Baker said in late November. “We must not govern under a culture of fear where political opportunism outweighs our humanity and civility.”
Del. Kirill Reznik (D-39), who represents Montgomery County, wrote a letter to Hogan in November asking him to reconsider his statement, speaking as a refugee himself.
“We need to do everything we can to make sure that these folks know that they are welcome, that we’re not afraid of them,” Reznik said.
He and his family moved the United States from Ukraine in the late 1970s. They had a three-month journey, but were welcomed into the country when they arrived.
“I definitely had it a lot easier,” Reznik said.
The Montgomery County Council also wrote a letter the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement stating that though the authority to allow refugees to enter the area did not belong to the county or to the state, they welcomed any refugees who might be assigned to the county in the future.
No refugees were assigned to stay in Montgomery County, but a few families are staying in Prince George’s County, including Ghassan’s.
Ghassan’s family arrived at their apartment in the County about six weeks ago. They received services from the American Refugee Committee, a nonprofit organization that provides humanitarian assistance.
He said he constantly worries about how he will pay for rent, utilities and food for his family. He does not know how to speak English, and the resettlement agency said it will provide English lessons, but he must find a job within three months and English lessons will stop the end of the three-month period.
Ghassan said having to do both at the same time adds to his stress level.
His job in Syria did not require him to speak English. Now English is crucial to nearly any job opportunity. The resettlement agency said it would find him a job to start now, but the job it found for him is two hours away by public transportation, limiting the hours he would be available to work.
Representatives of the resettlement agency contacted him when they realized this. He continues to wait for a job.
He said if he were offered a job, he would begin working right away. The stipend he receives from the resettlement agency will not be enough to cover the cost of rent, food, utilities and transportation because the cost of the plane tickets is deducted from that.
Despite his constant stress from transitioning to life as a refugee in the U.S., including looking for a job, worrying about how he will pay rent and wondering if he will learn English from the lessons, Ghassan said his utmost fear is for his parents still living in Syria. He said he worries for their safety and for their livelihood. Although Ghassan is one of 10 children, he is his parents’ single source of financial sustenance.
“I’ll have food,” he said. “Maybe my kids will go to school. I worry about my parents.”
Naha said she tries to make sure her children do not make noise and bother their neighbors downstairs. The quietest activities are either to color or watch a DVD, both of which were provided by other Syrian families in the U.S. who heard about their arrival. She said her children are bored much of the time. Her two older children, ages 7 and 5, are registered to attend school in the county in January. They will learn to speak English at school.
Naha said she will not have an opportunity to learn the language right away because she has to take care of her youngest son all day. She said she might seek lessons once her husband finds a job.