One family's journey from Iraq to Syria to Rockwood

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Ahmed Abdullah, right, and Maryan Mohammad, second from left, moved to Barberry Village from Syria with their three children, Yassir, left, Abdul, middle, and Manahel, second from right.Ahmed Abdullah and Maryan Mohammad knew it was time to leave Syria when the kidnappings began.

In 2009, neighbors were disappearing and violent outbreaks between police and rebel groups foreshadowed the now 2-year-long civil war that has left more than 100,000 dead.

One afternoon, amid the heightened political and religious violence, Abdullah got a call from the United Nations offering him and his family the opportunity to relocate to the United States.

It wouldn’t have been the first time the couple and their three children were forced to flee. In 2005, Abdullah and Mohammad left their hometown, Bashrah, in Iraq, after the Gulf War and U.S. invasion left the family without enough food and water.

“It was really hard to live in Iraq during the wars, “Abdullah said through a translator. “When I was little, I remember many of my teachers were killed.”

The family arrived in Syria as some of the 480,000 Iraqi refugees, and lived in an apartment provided by the United Nations. Abdullah had a few friends in Syria, which made the transition easier, but it didn’t prevent the inevitable discrimination refugees face on a daily basis.

“People knew we were Iraqi because of our accents,” Abdullah said. “And we were taken advantage of.”

The family was charged higher prices at the market, and Abdullah, who taught Arabic at an elementary school in Iraq, could only secure a summer school job in Syria because he was not given a work authorization card by the government. With the increasing violence, the family’s financial woes only intensified their need to move.

“It was a hard decision to make,” Abdullah said. “I had never thought about going to the U.S. before. I didn’t speak any English and didn’t know how I would communicate.”

But, with limited options, Abdullah and Mohammad accepted the U.N.’s offer and told their kids they were going on a trip. Soon, they were packing their things and making the two-day journey across the Atlantic Ocean.

Upon their arrival in Portland, Sponsors Organized to Assist Refugees (SOAR) welcomed the family and drove them to their new home: an apartment complex in Rockwood called Barberry Village, which houses many refugee and immigrant families.

“At first, we didn’t want to move here because we had heard it was a bad place with lots of drugs and kidnappings,” Abdullah said. “But we found it to be quiet, and our children love it.”

For families like Abdullah’s, Barberry Village has provided a safe, welcoming home, where refugees can begin to reconstruct their lives with the help of apartment staff and case managers who placed them there.

Prior to refugees’ arrival, many different organizations and programs handle resettlement, but the process always begins with the United Nations. It determines whether or not families or individuals can be considered refugees due to what they call a “well founded fear of persecution” on the basis of at least one of five internationally recognized grounds: race, religion, membership of a social group, political opinion or national origin.

If granted refugee status, the Resettlement Support Center prepares a case file and the refugees are interviewed by the Department of Homeland Security and screened for medical or security issues before boarding planes, many for the first time, and departing to their new homes.

Since the U.S. Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act was signed in 1975, more than 3 million refugees have undergone this process and entered the U.S.

For the first 8 months, refugees receive financial assistance and check-ins from case managers.

“Some people have no experience living in our style of apartments,” Brendon Robar, a case manager at Catholic Charities, which handles refugee resettlement in Portland, said. “So we are thorough in explaining door locks and water heaters and electric stoves and safety precautions.”

All other matters, including everything from broken-down cars to how to use a stove, are handled by apartment managers like Dennis Hanna at Barberry Village.

Because families come from countries with a wide variety of different cultural and living customs, Hanna ends up explaining to families things like they can’t ferment fish in their backyards or cook outside on an open fire.

“There have been some challenges,” Hanna said. “But it’s just like anything else you would do as a manager.”

Hanna said that once the misunderstandings are clarified, refugees typically adhere to the complex’s rules, which has transformed the apartments into a family friendly living space.

“Refugees are lucky to have a place like this,” Robar said. “They have an on-site apartment manager who has an open door policy to help out a refugee not only with apartment problems but other questions also.”

Abdullah said he has felt taken care of by apartment staff, SOAR and the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO).

“SOAR helped us a lot in the beginning by finding us a house, social security cards and IDs,” Abdullah said.

But many acculturation issues are out of Barberry Village, SOAR and IRCO’s control.

“There’s a huge difference between Syria and the United States,” Abdullah said. “Here there are different religions, traditions, ways of life.”

For example, raising children in America is vastly different than in the Middle East.

“When I was growing up, I had different problems than what my kids are facing today,” Abdullah said. “We find out how to do it day-by-day.”

Abdullah and his family are Sunni Muslim and struggle to continue their religious practices in their new environment. They pray daily and adhere to the month-long fast called Ramadan, but not eating from sunrise to sunset can be difficult for the kids who run around all day.

“The kids tend to take on their friends’ traditions,” Abdullah said. “But we try really hard to maintain our culture.”

The family takes a 30-minute bus ride whenever they want to go to mosque, and finding certain ingredients to cook Middle Eastern cuisine can require hour-long trips to Beaverton, making cultural retention not only difficult, but time consuming.

Despite the challenges, Abdullah said he and his family are thankful to be in Oregon—now more than ever.

Two weeks ago, the Syrian government allegedly attacked civilians with chemical weapons, leaving up to 1,400 people dead. Abdullah’s old neighborhood, Eastern Gouta, just outside the capitol, was one of the two communities where the toxic chemicals were unleashed.

“I can’t describe how I feel. I don’t know what to do,” Abdullah said. “I feel really sorry for my friends, but, at the same time, so lucky to be here.”

Abdullah said he can’t go back to Syria or Iraq, where militia have taken over his hometown, so instead he and his family are embracing where they are: Barberry Village.

Abdullah is looking for work and Mohammad takes English classes at Portland Community College. They both hope to improve their English and social skills in order to provide a better life for their children.

Because, despite having lost countless friends to war and uprooting their families to live in a new world they don’t fully understand, they’re here to stay.

“I’m focusing on where I live,” Abdullah said. “My family is in a better place now.”

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