Starting Over: Syrian Refugees Resettle In The Triad
Two-thousand refugees from Syria made it to the U.S. this year. In 2016, there will be thousands more. Places like Winston-Salem are preparing for the influx. Already, a small handful of Syrian refugees call this place home. WFDD chronicles the story of one family’s transition to their new life here.
A Modest Beginning
The AlSakhita's have lived in their apartment since May, when they arrived in the states. Munzer Alsakhita has a salt-and-pepper beard and a friendly face. He works hard to make a guest feel welcome in his home. He serves them Arabic coffee. It's dark, strong, and spicy.
Their place is small–two bedrooms for this family of five. But it’s tidy and comfortable. And it’s very different from their last place. His house in Syria was large and full of windows, so he could see the bombs dropping all around them in Damascus.
“It was terrifying," Munzer says through a translator. "When things started getting rough, we’d look for a safe place. We’d have to go into the bathroom because it had two walls before things slowed down enough, and we could go down into a shelter."
Leaving A Life Behind
The decision to flee Syria wasn’t easy. It was a series of sleepless nights, checkpoints where he and his family were blackmailed, and the growing unease that his three teenaged daughters weren’t safe.
He fled to Turkey, where he was referred to a resettlement agency, which helped the family for 15 months. He fights back tears remembering the moment he learned they had plane tickets to Chicago.
"They welcomed us in a way that even your family wouldn’t do for you."
A Human To Human Connection
The AlSakhita’s journey ended in North Carolina. The state’s largest resettlement agency, World Relief, organizes community support.
“When I got off the plane, I saw from a distance about twenty people gathered around and I heard them saying my name. I looked behind me to see who they were talking to. But there was just me and nobody else. They were greeting me,” says Munzer through a translator.
They brought the family to the apartment where they now live. It was furnished and they prepared a homemade Syrian meal.
“We knew America was a civilized place, but this was much more than we expected,” says Munzer. “We are grateful for this connection, this human to human connection.”
A Big Change
But every day after has been a challenge. Little things, like the weather, the trees, even the squirrels make this place feel foreign. And there are big differences, like grocery shopping. They were embarrassed because they couldn’t communicate.
“America at first was very difficult because it is a big change in my life,” Hiam Alsakhita says, her English slow but clear. She’s Munzer’s wife. They’re both taking ESL classes to learn the language better.
Their younger daughters attend public school, and the eldest is 18 and at a community college.
She says her older daughter has had the most trouble adjusting because she can’t understand the professors.
The most immediate concern, though, is finding work for Munzer.
No Easy Task
At a local jobs center, Munzer gets help with a log-in and password, so he can search for jobs online. He doesn’t have a computer at home.
Brian Lane with NCWorks assists Munzer with the process.
“Let me show you a little trick,” says Lane. “If you hold down the shift, you can make it capital.”
Munzer slowly considers the keyboard, looking for letters in a language not his own. It’s hard enough that he’s from another country, but he’s also not young. He’s 60 and struggled with machine work and other factory jobs that he’s gotten.
“I worked 15 days in a cables factory. We were cutting cables,” says Munzer through a translator. “It was very hot there and I was fasting because I am Muslim and the last day before I left I fainted.”
He’s used to office work. He was an accountant in Syria. The jobs he gets now are temporary and don’t pay enough to support his family. He says he asks every single person he meets to help him find work.
“That’s the most important thing... to help me find a job,” says Munzer.
But he’s hopeful. He wants to be a U.S. citizen one day. Because despite how hard this has been, he’s grateful to be one of the few Syrian refugees here now. He says for him, a home is a place where he’s safe.