HACKENSACK, N.J. — Syrians fleeing war and devastation in their homeland have settled in North Jersey by the hundreds since turmoil broke out three years ago. While family members, houses of worship and a social services agency offer support, many struggle to find work, afford housing and deal with grief amid harrowing experiences in war.
Drawn to North Jersey by long-established Syrian-American communities, many arrive with no identification papers, with little more than the clothing they are wearing and with bitter memories of the life-threatening conditions that drove them from their homes.
Newcomers include Mahmoud Alzouabi, who was living with his family in a Syrian city under siege two years ago. They faced hunger and destruction.
“After the revolution, the situation in Syria was very bad,” Alzouabi said. “There was all kinds of shelling and weapons. It was very difficult to buy food and there wasn’t electricity. At any moment there was a chance you could be detained.”
Pro-reform protests broke out against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad in March 2011, sparking a violent government crackdown that led to full-blown war and a refugee crisis. About 2.3 million have fled the country and an additional 4 million have been displaced within Syria. The Syrians who have come to North Jersey are largely unrecognized as they blend into Arab-American neighborhoods in a diverse state that is home to more than 9,000 Syrian-Americans, according to the Census Bureau.
The United States offers financial aid and transitional help to Syrians who are accepted into its refugee resettlement program, but only 108 Syrians have been officially designated as refugees. Many others are stymied by stringent U.S. security concerns over people arriving with no identification papers. Others face a high legal barrier in the requirement that they prove they are victims of persecution and not merely people displaced by war.
Many of the Syrian refugees have arrived with visitor’s visas and extended their stays, legally, through what is known as temporary protective status, which allows them to get Social Security numbers and authorizes them to find employment.
Alzouabi, 42, fled with his wife and eight children from Daraa, a hotbed of anti-government protest. In the first month of protests, Alzouabi said he saw a close friend shot to death at a demonstration. Another time, he said, he was beaten by the police who questioned him for using his cellphone at a checkpoint. Alzouabi said his sister’s house was burned to the ground. Soldiers destroyed houses and cars and searched houses during the 2011 siege of Daraa, when food and electricity were cut off to neighborhoods, he said.
“Of course we were afraid, especially when there was shelling,” he said. “We’d run from one room to another, trying to predict where the shells would fall. Sometimes we’d run in the middle of the night to seek refuge in our neighbor’s basement.”
He and his family fled by car to Jordan and got visas to travel to the United States, where they have family. Now, they live in South Paterson and the children attend city schools; in the past year alone, two dozen other Syrian families have enrolled their children, according to the school district.
Alzouabi said his children struggle with the language and that sometimes their tempers flare. One son, he said, got in trouble for hitting another child.
For a month after their arrival, one of his sons spoke of hearing shelling noises and feared planes overhead were coming to bomb them. “He would ask us, ‘Do you hear that?’ ” Alzouabi said.
Christians are among the hundreds of Syrians who have come to North Jersey. Antoun Askar worked construction in Qatar for years before returning home to Syria in July 2011.
“I came back astonished,” he said, adding that groups of Muslim extremists marched through the streets threatening Christians and disrupting long-standing peaceful relations.
At a checkpoint, he said, a man on a motorcycle drove by and clubbed his wife in the knee, sending her tumbling to the ground in pain. She needed knee surgery and still cannot stand for long stretches because of the injury.
With his work history in Qatar, and a sister in New Jersey, Askar was able to get a visitor’s visa to travel to the U.S. He has since gotten temporary protected status for himself, his wife and his two sons, ages 4 and 8. It entitles people already in the United States to remain for an extended time because of dangers in their native country because of war, civil unrest or natural disaster.
Askar has been living on his savings and renting a home in Dumont, but does not know what he will do when the money runs out. He has gotten some help in the Syrian community — a doctor and a lawyer offered their services at low cost. A relative gave him furniture.
With temporary protected status, he has work authorization and a Social Security number, but he cannot find work. He applied for health care coverage but did not understand the responses he got. His wife is eight months pregnant.
“Everything is difficult here. Everything is complicated. There’s no help,” said Askar, who has applied for refugee status, fearing religious persecution back home.
The family attends St. Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Cathedral in Teaneck, which has about 10 new families from Syria, church leaders said. The church has helped newcomers with donations of clothing and furniture, but some are embarrassed to ask for help, said Elias Sarkar, a Moonachie resident who is president of the archdiocese’s executive council.
“Many of them have families here, but how long can you stay with family?” he said. “They come here and many don’t speak English. They have to get acclimated.”
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Najwa Basuf, 35, was able to leave Damascus in 2011 because she had previously lived in New Jersey and is an American citizen. She had believed the conflict would be resolved quickly, but then tensions exploded “like a fire.”
She heard gunfire in streets nearby and feared the many military checkpoints she had to pass through. Soldiers surrounded her son and other worshipers at mosque prayers one Friday. She pleaded with the U.S. Embassy to expedite the renewal of her children’s expired passports.
At home now in Clifton, Basuf said that she and her husband scan Facebook and call family daily, each time with heavy hearts. They hear horror stories about relatives and neighbors: about sons executed before their fathers; about an ill woman who couldn’t get to a hospital and died; about 35 people trapped in one home, starving, with the homeowner arrested for providing them shelter.
She left her home, her land and her savings in Syria and is devastated over the destruction.
“What’s happening in Syria, believe me, it’s haram, haram,” she said, eyes red, using the Arabic word for shameful or sinful.
At the Islamic Center of Passaic County in Paterson, office manager Hamid Imam said at least 100 newcomers had recently arrived from Syria. The mosque has supplied food and clothing and financial help, while some members have offered professional services at no cost or low cost. The mosque also has employed Alzouabi as a nighttime custodian.
“Many of them need rent assistance, help with school registration, and attorney fees,” Imam said. “We tried to do fundraising for the families here.”
The WAFA House in Clifton, a social services charity that caters to the Arab community, recently held a donation drive at the mosque for household goods to benefit refugees. The non-profit also has provided food vouchers, diapers, free legal services and therapy sessions.
Wijdan Assaf, a clinician at the WAFA House, said about 30 displaced Syrians have sought help at the agency.
“A lot of them come here and don’t have assistance to rely on,” Assaf said. “They need apartments and need help to advocate in schools. They need to get medical assistance and social services. Basically they need to start from zero.”
Syrians who are granted asylum are eligible for help from programs funded by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, including cash and medical assistance, job preparation and placement and English-language training. But only 108 Syrians have been granted official refugee status by the U.S.
Most have come to this country as visitors and stayed. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has accepted 5,261 applications for temporary protected status from Syrians already in the U.S., approving 2,038 of those and denying 59; the rest are pending. Of those, 335 applications came from Syrians in New Jersey; 150 were approved, three denied and the rest are pending.
With no end in sight to the war, more Syrians can be expected to arrive in North Jersey. The U.S. government expects to receive thousands of referrals for resettlement from the United Nations’ refugee agency in 2014, with arrivals expected in 2015 and 2016, according to the State Department. It is not known how many will be accepted.
Some elected officials and human rights groups have called for the U.S. to do more and take in 15,000 Syrians refugees. According to news reports, the Obama administration expects to take in only as many as 2,000.
A small percentage of all refugees are resettled in a third country, said a State Department spokeswoman. The U.S. government’s main goal has been to provide refugees with humanitarian assistance and protection in the place to which they have fled, to give them “a better opportunity to return home at a future date,” the spokeswoman said.
Askar has applied for refugee status, hoping it will bring him more security and more help so he can rebuild his life. He misses home, but fears he won’t be able to return to a country that has been largely destroyed and divided.
“Anybody coming with our conditions is coming as a lost man, as a lost family,” he said. “They need somebody to lead them, take his hand and show him the way.”