On an overcast and chilly Sunday, Syrian refugees gathered in a conference room at a Holiday Inn close to Piedmont Triad International Airport. They were attending an event hosted by The Islamic Center of the Triad (ICT) Refugee Committee.
The afternoon functioned as an orientation for Syrian families resettled in the area.
Speakers from the Greensboro Police Department, the Doris Henderson Newcomers School, and Piedmont Interfaith Council provided advice on navigating life in America, as well a show of solidarity.
The ICT Refugee Committee assists refugees as they build new lives in the Triad. The committee began informally in 1995 to organize events for families at the mosque. Efforts solidified when Iraqi refugees started arriving in 2008.
Samira Khan, the committee’s outreach officer, said the non-profit organization currently serves around 250 Syrian refugees, including many children.
The goal, Khan shared, is to “support and empower refugees in the Triad.”
Refugees arrive in the United States with 90 days worth of financial resources provided by resettlement agencies. They receive social service benefits, including food stamps.
Even with initial support, Khan pointed out that many needs might be unanticipated and remain unmet. The committee assists by providing material items from car seats, clothes, hygiene products to household appliances.
The effort also offers community support from local Muslims.
Khan said that emotional resources are important. Some refugees come to the United States with unrealistic ideas about life in America and may be unprepared for the challenges ahead.
“It is interesting to see,” Khan said. “I work very closely with some of the families. They have high expectations. They have survived.
They’ve been through so much, and now they are safe. They are in America. They think that they will have a car, a house, and that life will be all good. There are so many steps to get there. But they do get there.”
The United States committed to accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016. As of July, 125 families had been resettled in North Carolina.
More refugees arrived in October and November. Communities rushed to accommodate the last wave of resettlement. Some of that support came from volunteer organizations such at ICT’s Refugee Committee.
The issue of Syrian refugees remained forefront during the presidential campaign. Rhetoric focused on national anxieties that ISIS could infiltrate the refugee process and gain entry into the United States.
In 2015, Governor Pat McCrory called for a halt in North Carolina accepting Syrian refugees. Governor-elect Roy Cooper also supported a “pause” in the resettlement process, a statement that many Democrats criticized.
American-Muslims and Syrian refugees face increased scrutiny during the Trump administration. There are calls to establish a Muslim registry; a claim Trump now denies having made.
During the campaign, Trump also made statements supporting “extreme vetting” for future Syrian refugees, or even a halt in accepting refugees from Syria and Libya.
“”We don’t know who they are. They have no documentation and we don’t know what they’re planning,” said Trump.
The vetting process for refugees from Syria is already one of the most stringent. The vetting begins with the United Nations High Committee on Refugees (UNHCR). A second round occurs once refugees are referred to United States based resettlement agencies —a process that involves nine different agencies. The process can take eighteen to twenty four months.
The Syrian conflict is one of the most pressing humanitarian crises of this decade.
Approximately 11 million pre-war residents — about half of Syria’s population — have been killed or forced to flee their country. State Department data indicates that 67 percent of Syrian refugees are women and children under 12 years of age.
“No one knows what to expect with the new President,” said May Zamamiri, a key organizer in ICT’s work with refugees.
Yet, ICT is committed to serving this community, regardless of the political climate.
The Muslim community serves as an important bridge for Syrians to successfully integrate into American life. American-Muslims provide cultural and religious familiarity for refugees.
One of the biggest challenges in resettlement is the language barrier. Arabic speaking individuals in the community serve as interpreters and mentors.
Zamamiri is one of those mentors. She is beloved among Syrian families. The children affectionally refer to her as “aunty.”
She stressed that ICT is there to provide resources and to encourage Syrians to embrace opportunities in America. “It is really hard in the beginning. What we try to do now with the Syrian refugees is let them settle. God knows what they left behind. They struggle a lot,” she said.
She emphasized that ICT’s committee wants refugees to know that they will be okay.
“The most important thing for you is education. If you go with your education, this is your future here,” she tells them.
Subsequent orientations will include encouragement and support to learn English.
Zamamiri, a Palestinian who is an American citizen, knows what it is like to be a political exile. Her family had to leave Palestine to resettle in Kuwait. After the first Gulf War in 1991, Kuwait expelled Palestinians, thus she was exiled twice.
Zamamiri understands the struggles of starting over, as well as the traumas of war. Syrians, in particularly, are negotiating geopolitics on a massive scale.
“It is not an easy thing. We have to deal with different people,” she said. “They are all the same culture. But you don’t know what they suffered before. Some of them talk about it. Some of them don’t want to talk about it. Some of them left family behind. Their mothers, their fathers. My heart goes out for them.”
For Zamamiri, assisting with Syrian refugees is part of a larger call to serve community. “I don’t care about their nationality or their religion. I care that they are human beings.”
To learn more about ICT’s efforts, or to donate items, email firstname.lastname@example.org.