For A Syrian Family That Had Planned To Resettle In Detroit, Waiting Is The Hardest Part

Feb 2, 2017

President Trump’s executive order suspending refugee resettlement recently put the brakes on Rutland's plans to welcome 100 refugees. The policy change is impacting thousands of families, including the Alzoubanis, who were getting ready to move to Detroit, Michigan.

First, it’s important to understand just how difficult it is for a refugee to be resettled. It’s kind of like winning the lottery.

Douglas DiSalvo is a senior protection officer in Jordan with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

“I think it’s one of the great disappointments for many refugees who, once they get over the shock of having been forced to leave their country and being uprooted ... there’s a real expectation amongst a lot of refugees that they will be resettled," DiSalvo explains.

But in reality, says DiSalvo, it only happens for 1 to 2 percent:

“The vast majority of refugees will remain in the country of asylum, like Jordan or anywhere in the world, for as long as it takes for their home country to become stable and safe enough for them to return home,” he said.

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For the Alzoubanis – Mohammed, his mother Fatimeh, his wife Sousan and their six kids, life in Jordan has been tough. They live in a three-bedroom apartment in a tired neighborhood in Amman.

I take my shoes off at the front door and the family leads me into their living room, encouraging me to sit closest to the portable heater, which feels wonderful on this chilly day.

A fruit vendor near the Alzoubanis' apartment in Amman. Mohammed, his mother Fatimeh, his wife Sousan and his six children all share a three-bedroom apartment in the neighborhood.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

The Alzoubanis are from Daraa, a Syrian city 8 miles north of the Jordanian border. Mohammed was an electrician, Sousan was a stay-at-home mom.

They didn’t want to leave, but Mohammed says through an interpreter that the war made staying impossible.

“The shelling starts getting closer and closer to where we were at and I was too afraid that one would land too close to us and will harm the children,” Mohammed explains. “So we decided to leave Syria and come here to Jordan because it’s safe and secure, and the kids can continue their study and can continue with their lives.”

Mohammed’s mother Fatimeh nods, disturbed by the memory.

“It was the bombing and shelling,” she said through an interpreter,“When it starts getting close ... He’s my only son. I have no one else other than him. I don’t have a husband, or anybody else. So when he decided to leave, I’m going to leave with him. I left with him looking for safety and security.”

They fled in 2012.

While it’s been safe, making ends meet has been a challenge.

Mohammed, like most refugees, didn’t have the right to work, and monthly aid from the U.N. has been shrinking.

"It was the bombing and shelling. When it starts getting close... He's my only son. I have no one else other than him ... So when he decided to leave, I'm going to leave with him." — Fatimeh, a Syrian refugee living in Amman

They applied for resettlement in 2015, and after each round of interviews and security checks, Mohammed says they grew more hopeful.

“I have done the entire process,” Mohammed explains, “I have gone through the interviews with the immigration officer, I got approved. I have done my medical tests. I even took the educational course about American law and American holidays. We studied American law and we studied about America. And we were very, very happy and we said, ‘Thank you, America, thank you, America.’”

Photos: In The World's Second-Largest Refugee Camp, Syrians 'Live Day By Day'

The family says they were told by the IOM – the International Organization for Migration – that they’d be moving to Detroit, Michigan.

Fatimeh was even assigned a travel date: Dec. 22, 2016. But the family didn’t want her to travel alone, so they asked immigration officials to postpone her departure until the entire family was cleared to go.

Sousan says they’d been pouring over pictures of Michigan on the internet when they heard President Trump announce his order to halt resettlement.

“I was shocked – I went into shock,” Sousan says through an interpreter. “We were very excited for this and we wanted to go for the sake of the kids and their education. I was shocked from it.”

"I was shocked — I went into shock. We were very excited for this and we wanted to go for the sake of the kids and their education. I was shocked from it." — Sousan, a Syrian mother of six hoping to resettle in Detroit, Mich.

Mohammed is more circumspect, but his eyes show just how much this setback has meant.

“President Trump had made a decision for the safety and security of his country and his people,” says Mohammed. “I was looking forward to be part of that country, to live in that country. I’m proud of him for having such a concern for his country and for the people. And I would have wanted to be part of that and live in the U.S.”

Having come from a country where chemical weapons were used against civilians in the civil war, Mohammed’s feelings are understandable.

Sousan nods, but admits through the interpreter that the waiting is the hardest part.

She gets up to serve tea while her mother-in-law invites me to stay for lunch – a real Syrian meal, she says, smiling.

I’d love to stay, but I know they barely have enough for themselves.

VPR's reporting from Jordan on the refugee crisis is supported in part by the VPR Journalism Fund.