Updated: Sep 22, 2022
The story of Zahra’s life can be seen in her small two-bedroom apartment in New Jersey.
The ornately embellished Qur’an resting on the tableside next to her couch. The days-old shisha, hookah, tucked in the corner on her kitchen countertop, still releasing the aroma of sweet double apple tobacco. Her fair skin and dark brown hair, visible only when she is at home and not wearing her hijab. The framed certificates on the wall, showing the courses she completed at Emma’s Torch, a non-profit that teaches refugees English and trains them to work in the food industry. The framed photographs on the tables, of the two children who live with her, and also the two from whom she is separated, caught in legal limbo.
Zahra’s story is one of millions of refugees, but also very much her own. Families who are displaced from their homeland must experiment with how to live in a foreign world, to adapt to a culture and study a society they don’t yet understand, and they do so at the whim of circumstance. Their futures and those of their children changing with each new regulation, quota and law.
Zahra lived in Yalda, Syria, south of Damascus. Even before the war, life was far from luxurious, but even though her family was poor the pleasures were simple.
Through a translator she described family gatherings held at a relative’s house located on a farm. They would spend evenings in each other’s company. The children entertained themselves and the adults spoke about politics, religion, or culture, and sometimes that led to arguments. The space would be filled with wholesome conversations and laughter. Small moments that would distract what was going on in their country. It was safe back then, she said. “We were able to leave the house whenever we wanted at night,” she said. “There was beautiful greenery, the parties were nice – the Syrian wedding parties, the country was very prosperous.” Neighbors helped neighbors then, she said. The children played in the park and mothers would take pride in simply raising them.
Then, in March of 2011, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began to crack down violently on anti-government and pro-democracy protestors. Defiant Syrian teenagers painted, “Freedom. Down with the regime. Your Turn, Doctor” on their schoolyard wall, challenging Assad, a trained ophthalmologist. The arrest and torture of the teens led eventually to civil war. The fighting divided families and the world, as the US and Russia took sides.
Gone were the friendly neighborhood parties and the feeling of safety. “I kept hearing bombs going off,” Zahra said. “One happened two blocks away from my home. We were always hiding in our house.”
Food became scarce, gasoline prices rose to an astronomical 7000 Syrian pounds per gallon, and Zahra debated burning her own couch for heat. A sniper made his presence known near Zahra’s street, and when her husband and sons left the house to find work each day she waited anxiously for their return. “As a mom your worst fear concerns your family,” Zahra said.
The situation worsened. Losing their home, the family moved from one relative or friend to the next. Zahra’s son, Nasir, then 12-years-old, left school in order to earn money. Her oldest son, Kareem, then 16-years-old, fled for Jordan where he stayed for two years, for fear of kidnapping by rebels or military men. “We would see the airstrikes hitting the buildings and the buildings collapsing and we would hide under our beds,” Zahra said.
In the Winter of 2012, a bomb went off next to five-year-old Saad’s school bus. “The bus driver stopped, he stopped on the side of the road, all the glass was shattered, and the students, some of them got injured and died, and this child saw all of this with his eyes,” Zahra says of her youngest son, who is now 14.
A sensitive boy, Saad witnessed another explosion two years later, after the school bus incident. This time, it occurred inside his school, when he was in the first grade. Zahra didn’t hear from him for four hours and what followed was confusion and disorder. Traumatized, Saad finally arrived home, stuttering with a voice strained from fear. His pants were wet after he urinated on himself.
“When he came back he was weak, we took him to the doctor, treated him, and many things happened. But we kept resisting,” Zahra says.
Trauma in children who experience[d] war is severe. War-associated daily stresses, “hugely impact psychological well-being,” Perkins et. al (2018), in a study on Mental Health in Syrian Children with a Focus on Post-Traumatic Stress.
Some of the major forms of PTSD include signs of nightmares, fear of death, flashbacks of war, being threatened or injured, and the overwhelming anxiety of losing family members. Triggers lead children to act impulsively or anxiously, experience emotional numbness, trouble focusing in school, or experience flashbacks of trauma. Saad was a product of PTSD from war.
Saad had almost all of these. As Zahra tried to navigate her child’s health, her husband, was far from helpful. “He has never carried responsibility for his children, or responsibility for a woman,” she says. When she informed him that they must seek refuge in another country out of reasonable fear for their lives, he was not invested in the thought of leaving. Still, Zahra got in touch with a friend who left Syria to go live in Thailand. That friend informed Zahra that her family was able to come to the country with travel visas easily.
“I told my husband […] we are either going to die, like the other Syrian refugees who are dying, or we are going to live,” she said. He agreed that they should leave.
As a result of the civil war, there are 5.6 million Syrian refugees, with 6.6. million displaced within the country, according to the UN Refugee Agency. Syria remains to be the largest refugee crisis in the world and Zahra and her family only make up a tiny grain of sand in this desert of displacement. The number of deaths since the start of the war in 2011 is estimated to be 511,000 as of March 2018, documented by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in the UK.
There were no flights in and out from Syria, so they planned a route through Lebanon, but they needed money. Eventually her sister’s father-in-law, who lived in the United States, lent her $5,000.
Zahra, who is 45 years old now, never traveled outside of Syria – by car or by plane. “How are you going to travel?” or “You have never traveled in your life to a foreign country,” family members said. Zahra answered: “God willing.”
The 12 hours to Lebanon was exhausting. They waited another 10 hours at the airport before the 10-hour flight to Thailand. Drained, they settled in a home that belonged to a friend.
Thailand is one of the few countries where visitors can easily obtain a tourist visa anywhere from 60 to 90 days. So, the family got their tourist visa. But, after some time it expired and they began living in Thailand as an undocumented family in 2014.
Zahra, her husband and her children (including Kareem who had returned from hiding in Jordan), lived in Thailand for one year and ten months. Saad’s condition continued to get worse. He stuttered and was unable to form coherent sentences; he attempted suicide three times. Worrying about Saad’s mental health affected Zahra’s. “I started going crazy,” she said. “Not just my son. Even me.”
She went to the Bangkok Refugee Center for medical care and counsel. She learned a lot about the toll of trauma on Syrian children, but not much about how to help them. A study finds that out of 1000 Syrian refugee children and adolescents aged 7-18 years, who attend schools in Lebanon and Jordan, 45.6 percent of the refugees develop post-traumatic stress disorder, “with excessive risk for comorbidity with emotional dysregulation,” or hyperactivity, according to Dr. Vivian Khamis, a professor of psychology and education at the American University of Beirut who published the analysis.
This means that children like Saad, who suffer from trauma, do not understand how to control or regulate their emotional responses to their environment. “He’s not himself anymore,” Zahra said. She witnessed Saad’s misery and struggled every day – her heart was tired.
Kareem would also try to comfort Saad. “You’re going to go to school, you’ll be able to make friends again,” he said in a telephone interview.
Saad’s mental health hit its peak of trauma-related symptoms. “The other children started telling him [Saad] that those who have expired visas get arrested. Saad started feeling more scared,” says Zahra.
The other children also suffered. Nasir, then 14, was hospitalized for two weeks with a lung infection, at times close to death. Zahra recalls the cockroaches in the halls. She also says that this is when she received advice on how best to serve her children’s needs – and it involved leaving the country, again.
They were just beginning to learn their way in Thailand and the thought of leaving was overwhelming. But so, she says, was the thought of staying. The Bangkok Refugee Center helped expedite the process of the family’s UNHCR paperwork due to mental health issues – considered a UNHCR Priority 1. “They [UN Officer and team] sped up our case because of Saad’s illness,” Zahra says.
One must be qualified for resettlement and a referral to the requested country. Once granted, refugees go through that specific country’s application process. Zahra, her husband and her two youngest sons were granted refugee status in the United States. But in a decision that still haunts her, Lyla and Kareem were left out of the application process.
The UN agency prioritized Zahra, her husband and the young children, but left the adult children off the file. It is unknown whether or not the agency or officer ever followed up with their case or left it alone, but Zahra’s lawyer claims they do not know the details. In the end, Zahra, her husband and her two sons were granted refuge in New Jersey.
Once Zahra received the news that her eldest children will not be entering the United States with her, she initially refused the offer. Zahra was about to turn down the grant from the UNHCR when a doctor from the refugee center spoke with her to weigh her options. Lyla and Kareem on the one hand and Saad on the other.
“She told me that Saad is in need of me now and that he would be losing everything in his life. While Lyla and Kareem are older and they can manage for six months until they join you,” says Zahra.
For the last two days before their separation, Zahra couldn't sleep. "I remember the last two days even with all the medication and relaxants I could not tell day from night,” she says, using an Arabic expression which means that she could not sleep.
“On the last day nobody could speak,” she says. When they went to the airport as a family, everyone was crying. “Kareem held his sister and they started crying and I also started crying. The whole way here we were crying,” Zahra says.
It was supposed to be a short separation, but then the rules changed once again.
Immigration is a contentious issue in Thailand. The government was not friendly to refugees. In 2018, after Zahra left Thailand in 2016 and settled in America with her husband and boys, the now ex-immigration bureau chief of Thailand, Surachate Hakparn, ordered the arrest of all Syrian and Palestinian refugees. The operation was called, Operation X-Ray Outlaw Foreigner. The task was formed to target anyone who had overstayed their visa. More than a thousand were arrested, though human rights groups have charged that racial profiling tactics were used, resulting in a focus on refugees from Africa and South Asia.
Lyla and Kareem were arrested and held in an immigration detention center for 11 months.
“They hit them when they were arresting them from their house. Imagine how insulting that is,” Zahra says. Kareem describes that arrest as “a day that one can never forget in their lives,” but beyond that he refuses to elaborate, saying it hurts too much to describe.
Lyla told her mom that she was beaten again while held in prison. The surroundings were rough, and Lyla’s mental health suffered. Kareem was held in a cell next to a prisoner who constantly banged his head on the wall.
In the months since Lyla and Kareem’s release, Zahra became fearful for her daughter’s health – to the point that she thinks it may be worse than Saad’s. Lyla and Kareem live with a sponsor now, in the suburbs of Bangkok, but the trauma does not leave their minds. Since their discharge, they are on a version of parole. Twice a month they travel to an office to sign the agreement, or warranty, for legal stay in Thailand.
“You’re not supposed to work [and] don’t get yourself in trouble, these are the two rules,” Kareem says.
Zahra has been wiring money to her elder children, to cover living expenses, but it does not lift their misery. “Even though we have the warranty we are always living in fear, afraid, thinking that we did something,” says Kareem.
When Zahra filed the petition for Lyla and Kareem to come to the US, they would be applying for immigration status – an F2B visa, which is a visa for unmarried children of green-card holders over 21 years old. Lyla and Kareem would not be considered refugees. And so, Zahra sought a lawyer’s help. A request was put in for a referral based on the relationship for a mother and her children.
The firm’s referral to UNHCR proceeded and it went to Canada, not the US. It is currently pending and the family is waiting for Canadian officials to process Lyla and Kareem to be granted status as Canadian refugees. They are waiting in line for an interview.
Throughout this entire process, Zahra endured hurdle after hurdle. Lyla and Kareem became stuck in the in-between, constantly referring to their situation as “very bad.” In Thailand, the immigration officers woke the family up with guns – it was no different than Zahra’s initial fear of armed thieves and forces raiding her home in Syria.
Zahra and her family settled in New Jersey because it is close to her sister, Salma, the one relative she has in the US. Saad began school. Zahra began to hope his mind would stay occupied with class work so nightmares of war would not consume him. But Saad described being bullied by other students and ignored by teachers.
Within a year, Zahra’s husband emptied the small bank account that had been gifted to them by her sister’s husband, and returned to Syria, to be with another woman. Zahra and her two children moved in with Salma. “We started from zero,” Zahra says. Her own health worsened. Though technically not allowed to work as a condition of their visa, her older son Nasir found odd jobs that did not raise flags.
In March 2018, Zahra found her first job through a friend, Dunkin Donuts. She began to work there for three days a week and for a total of five months. Working at Dunkin Donuts, Zahra found herself having to interact with Americans for the first time. Even though the job was a blessing for her, the commute was long and inconvenient. She had to spend two hours getting to work and two hours returning home. Still, she felt grateful for the Egyptian woman who gave her the opportunity for work – even though the pay was $8 an hour. Zahra’s boss felt sorry for her, knowing that her commute was time-consuming. So, she told Zahra that she can leave whenever she wants if she gets a better opportunity for work.
And she did. Zahra found her second job, through the UNHCR, at a falafel shop. After working there for four months, the UNHCR referred her to Emma’s Torch. She received a stipend as a result of enrolling in the program and was finally able to send money to Lyla and Kareem consistently. She was making $15 an hour this time.
Zahra could not be with Lyla and Kareem physically, consoling them and being a mother to them, but at least she had a job now and could send them money. “It was a hard experience but at the same time it was nice, colleagues and chefs would see me crying and ask me what’s wrong,” she says.
One memory Zahra recalls of Emma’s Torch was the way she was treated. “There was no discrimination between religion in that school,” she says. Something she truly valued and appreciated.
“In all these difficult circumstances, imagine, my children were in prison, but I did not want to miss this opportunity, so I suffered and I learned and thank god they chose me,” she says.
After Emma’s Torch, Zahra was given the opportunity to work as a cook for a popular barbecue restaurant in New York City. She began working in September 2019. Zahra’s employment at the restaurant was secured through a volunteer from a nonprofit organization that offers support for refugees who resettle in Jersey. Zahra was able to utilize donated funds from volunteers and community organizers to transition into her new life in America.
Many volunteers of the nonprofit connected deeply with Zahra and her struggle. They listened to her, cried with her, and gave guidance on how to manage life in America. The nonprofit also began supporting Zahra through financial means once Lyla and Kareem were released from detention in August 2019.
Zahra was working while simultaneously consulting a psychiatrist and receiving medication for her anxiety. She continues to receive treatment until today. Zahra’s physician recently informed her that the working conditions of her environment at the restaurant affected her health, so she quit.
The nonprofit organization organized a benefit concert for Zahra at the end of 2019, calling on the community of Jersey to hear her story.
The rows of seats were ¾ of the way filled with several of the musician’s mothers, fathers, and friends. The event was held in a mid-19th century Episcopal gothic church, formed out of black bricks with red arches and a red door. A group of performing arts high school students sang songs that eluded to the theme of the evening, “What You Know” by Two Doors Cinema Club and Broadway musical sentimental ballads like, “She Used to Be Mine” by Sara Bareilles.
Zahra sat in the front row with the organizers. Her English is not fluent, but she smiled each time a new performer began to sing. Saad was seated at a round table in the back of the church with some of the organizer’s or volunteer’s children.
He’s doing much better now.
What Zahra assumed would be a short, six-month process of being separated from her children, is now three years and counting. The rules have continued to change.
During the Obama administration, the refugee admissions ceiling cap was set at 110,000 under and was kept that way throughout Barack Obama’s tenure as President. However, in January 2017, when Donald Trump became President, he signed an executive order suspending the entire US refugee admissions program for 120 days. What is known as the Muslim ban, the administration delayed, indefinitely, the entry of Syrian refugees into the country.
In terms of percentages, the Trump administration cut around 73 percent from Obama’s original refugee admittance ceiling set at 110,000. It is projected that in 2020, the administration will make an additional 10 percent increase in cuts, according to the Pew Research Center.
“It was a very hard experience, I would take medication to calm me down, my mind is always with my kids,” says Zahra when asked on how the immigration process affects her.
Zahra, Lyla, Kareem, Nasir, and Saad all have active cases in the states — which is why the names of everyone in this story have been changed. Zahra was able to use public benefits as a refugee and immigrants don’t have that opportunity. Since Trump’s takeover, sentiments amongst Americans for the US allowing refugees into the country has shifted drastically. Historically, the number of refugees admitted into the US has fluctuated, but Trump’s cuts have been the most dramatic. The only other time it was close to the current administrations cuts was right after the attacks on 9/11. “Christians accounted for 79% of refugees who came to the US in fiscal 2019”, according to the Pew Research Center. Muslims and other religious groups make up the remaining.
Based on political party affiliations, the center also analyzed that 51% of Americans believe the US has a responsibility to accept refugees, while 43% say it does not, based on a survey conducted in May 2018. For accepting Syrian refugees, the sentiments are almost split 50/50.
A lawyer representing Zahra and her family claims the complication of their case spreads from Zahra’s own case to that of Lyla and Kareem’s. Several active cases involving three different countries – Thailand, the United States, and Canada. Getting the family all together in one place will be difficult.
“I understand that the process is becoming hard but I’m hoping that since they [Lyla and Kareem] applied to Canada that they will get there. I’ll never lose hope to get my children nearby,” she says.
When Zahra moved to New Jersey, she noticed how people treated her primarily because she wore a hijab. It bothered her at first but she’s used to it now. Zahra found her community in her work, family, and through the help of the non-profit. She is thankful for living in the US and the opportunities granted to her.
Zahra feels healthier and better now, but understands that Lyla and Kareem don’t have the patience to live in Thailand anymore. And neither does she. At least if they get granted refugee status in Canada, she can drive up to see her kids. “We are a family in sweet times and bitter times,” she says.
“If I die, I’ll die with my family.”
Lyla and Kareem’s fate is still unknown for now. “I feel safe [here in the US] but I am not relaxed at all,” Zahra says. The situation with her husband leaving her as well caused severe strains but she was able to start again, from nothing. One thing is for certain, Zahra is willing to do anything to improve herself.
She is currently taking ESL classes at a local community college, making sure her mental health doesn’t get in the way with the work of her progress. She still hopes to hear the news of Lyla and Kareem’s granted status as Canadian refugees, soon. But for now, she continues to wait.