Seeking Safe Haven: How the Syrian Refugee Crisis Impacts San Antonio

by Zabdi Salazar, Daniela Montúfar-Soria, and Yara Samman

SAN ANTONIO, TX — “When I arrived to the states, I definitely thought I would live this amazing life, and be able to get a job and pick money out of a tree. In reality, we are facing many struggles, but at least it is a good future for my kids. I hope they continue their education, hopefully go to college. This whole journey is for them.”

Mohamad, a Syrian refugee who has lived in San Antonio for two years, shared his experience coming to the U.S. with his wife and four children. Mohamad and his family are six refugees out of 4.8 million Syrians that have left their war-torn home country. The family is also one of the few resettled Syrian families that arrived to San Antonio in 2016. Because of the travel ban targeting Syria and the low refugee cap, San Antonio has not received any new Syrian families since the beginning of 2017.

Syria’s modern history of political instability began with the French mandate in 1923, but it had never reached the current level of turmoil and violence. Bashar al-Assad was elected as president shortly after his father, Hafez al-Assad died, with an outcome of 99.7% in favor of a referendum. Bashar Assad was seen as a possible reformer, but everything changed in 2011. Out of frustration with a stagnant economy, a divided population and a corrupt government, people flooded the streets in 2011 demanding a change in government. Similar uprisings occurred in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya during the Arab Spring. The Syrian army violently counteracted protestors, which only intensified the conflict. The 2011 protests and subsequent fighting  has led to a destructive civil war that created the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

Despite such political turmoil, the U.S. only admitted 29,022 refugees in 2017. That figure is the lowest since 2002 after 9/11. Under President Reagan, the U.S. admitted the greatest number of refugees: 217,000. In 2018, the Trump administration has set a cap of resettling 45,000 refugees. So far, 6,700 refugees have been admitted to the U.S. during the first four fiscal months (October, November, December, January) of 2018. At this pace, only 20,000 refugees will be resettled in the U.S. The State Department Refugee Processing Center reports that 500 refugees have been resettled in Texas from Oct. 01 2017 to Feb. 28. 2018. Catholic Charities in San Antonio received 144 people between Oct. 2017 and Jan. 2018. The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) resettlement program is expecting about 120-145 refugees this year. The greatest refugee flows are now from Afghanistan, Burma, Iraq, and many African nations.

The travel ban and other new federal policies have visibly impacted refugee organizations in San Antonio.

Elizabeth Ortiz, director of educational and employment services at Catholic Charities explained that in the past they would resettle about a thousand people a year on average. This year, that number has been cut by half. In the summer of 2016, Catholic Charities resettled 29 Syrian refugees, yet about more than a half of them were school-age children. In 2017, Catholic Charities only received 5 Syrian families. Since then, they have not received a single Syrian refugee.

Compared to how refugees are portrayed by national news and President Trump, San Antonio has a different perception, alluding to an interesting disconnect between the public and private conscience of individuals. Margaret Costantino, Director for the Center of Refugee Services explained her thoughts on the matter. “We have problems at the federal level with immigration policies that I think are very harmful. Whether you are talking about the DACA kids or refugees, people who come from other countries come here for a reason. Most refugees come here for their kids. They don’t come here to take away things from us. And that message gets lost in all the noise. But if you talk to the people who have made the journey, some of those people have amazing stories,” she said. In order to understand how these families have integrated into the community, it is important to examine the many stakeholders involved in refugee resettlement in San Antonio and the families that they serve. As a consequence of the political discourse on refugees and the travel ban, Syrian refugee families in San Antonio have maintained a low profile.

The Local Network Supporting Refugees

A hidden generosity has sustained refugee foundations. Individual compassion has skyrocketed in contrast to the negative national discourse associated to refugees. Lina Sergie, a Syrian-American and co-founder and CEO of the Karam Foundation, described how community members fully fund her organization because they know of the struggles of Syrian refugee families. The Center for Refugees Services (CRS) in San Antonio is fully funded by a private charity and supported by a network of volunteers. Most noteworthy is that in Nov. 2016 after Donald Trump was elected president, donations to the foundation tripled. The organization is now able to pay part-time administrative staff while retaining over 30 volunteers. Catholic Charities also receives a substantial amount of private donation materials ranging from food, clothing, and other necessities. Similarly, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) has grown its volunteer base while providing greater educational and support services.

Syrian refugee children at a Karam Foundation classroom in Turkey.

Fewer arrivals due to the Trump administration’s policies have led to federal funding cuts, downsizing many resettlement services and programs. Catholic Charities and RAICES have repeatedly described how federal funding cuts are hindering the agencies’ ability to help clients. Both Ortiz and Albadri mentioned that the 90 day reception and placement program is usually not enough time to help clients gain self-sufficiency. Albadri believes that at least a year would help refugees with a high or low educational background to become settled. A year of support would help them either finish their educational studies or ingrain their English for better employment possibilities. In the long-run, she believes this would result in refugees needing less governmental assistance. Funding must be increased to extend this program. However, Albadri explained that the funds have not increased for the past six years despite an increase in minimum wage and inflation.

Catholic Charities hosts three major federally funded programs: Reception and Replacement, Match Grant, and Refugee Social Services. Initially, refugees arrive through the Reception and Placement program where they are assigned housing and a caseworker, receive help with paperwork, school registration, and applications to food-stamps and Medicaid. This assistance is provided during the first three months. Everything that is not finished is rolled over to the case manager program, under the Refugee Social Services grant. Refugees are also notified about the Match Grant program, which is a cash assistance program to cover their rent for the first few months to become situated.

Such initial financial assistance is critical to prepare themselves for economic self-sufficiency. Most refugees are in the process of learning the English language in order to gain employment and become qualified for their first job. After six months, they are paying rent like any other resident, however, Social Services programs can help families for up to five years. This major program covers education and employment resources, case management, a state funded employment-based refugee cash assistance service (RCA), and integration support. RAICES offers both the Reception and Replacement program and the Match Grant program, but not the extended services of employment or education. However, they also provide legal services to asylum seekers and “know your rights” information sessions for immigrants.  

All of the representatives from refugee organizations that we spoke to emphasized helping families gain self-sufficiency.  Sergie explained that after Syrian refugees go through the rigorous vetting process before arriving to the U.S., their organization goes through an additional selection process. The organization has a meeting with the family to determine whether their organization’s services are a good fit. “We don’t believe in handouts or providing things that are not going to be beneficial. Still, they might need something that they haven’t even thought of and in that case we might think of doing something different. We are very flexible,” she said. The foundation also screens students for scholarship consideration. “We try to be careful and take in the students that we feel are the most dedicated and committed to their education,” Sergie said. After exploring these struggles faced by refugee organizations, our team interviewed a Syrian family to discover their own journey in San Antonio.

A typical English as a Second Language class at the Center for Refugee Services.

Our conversations highlighted the tight collaboration among immigration and refugee centers in San Antonio. Einas Albadri, the new director for the refugee resettlement department within RAICES, expressed that any time that a refugee needed a service that RAICES did not offer, like employment opportunities, they reached out to Catholic Charities. RAICES has also worked with CRS for additional support with connecting refugees to classes. “Yes, it has happened that we have our differences, but we all have one goal and that is serving the refugee community,” Albadri said.

Albadri mentioned that they have quarterly reunions where they meet with the community, government agencies, their grant funder and the resettlement agency from Austin. They also coordinate to meet with the school district, government safety police, health clinics, all the resettlement agencies, and any community partner involved with refugees. “We all come together and communicate about how we can serve the client. If there is a specific issue that we need to discuss: housing, employment, health, wellness, safety, all these issues, we bring them to the table,” she said. Although these organizations hold the same goal of serving refugee populations, our team shared unique experiences meeting with the representatives of each organization.

On a rainy Monday, we visited the Center for Refugee Services, where Costantino greeted us at the door. She offered to give a tour of CRS. The building of the center is small, but it becomes filled with life as refugee families arrived. People of different cultures and dress flooded the small reception area arranged of two big couches, a single comfy chair in the corner, and a coffee table with an array of pamphlets on local social resources. When we were there, about ten people walked around or sat in the couches in the tight waiting room. Boxes of diaper packages aligned the hall-ways and a kids play area was nested in between two hallways. Costantino told us that there are usually about 25 to 30 people in the waiting room, which is hard to imagine in such a small space. She introduced us to refugees from Chad, Burma, Iraq, while commenting that we have “a little bit of the UN in here.” We visited all of the small learning classes. Attendance was lower than usual, especially for the English and math classes they offered. Many women wore hijabs and long dresses, and sat near the walls in the small white room. Their attention rested on the instructor.

CRS has not served Syrian refugees this year. In comparison to Catholic Charities receiving fewer refugees because of federal law, Costantino states that the center has continuously served 120 to 150 people every week. Their work and services have increased over time despite fewer new arrivals because settled refugees still come to the center for all kinds of basic support and information. “Most of the people that we meet or see have been coming here for three, four, five years. We knew them when they began, we build relationships with them and they will come and share their good stories and tragic ones too. We regard our refugee community as neighbors, so we welcome them and want them to know that they are welcomed here. Most refugees are very relational. They come from communities where you are not overwhelmed by technology at their homes,” Costantino said. CRS offers further support and social services to refugees that have already passed through the three to six months resettlement period, which allows them to cultivate long-lasting relationships. Most refugees also return to help prepare materials for U.S. citizenship.

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Amani Nganzi, a former refugee and now employed at Catholic Charities, with his family who just arrived to San Antonio.

In contrast to the size and layout of the CRS, Catholic Charities, funded by federal grants and one of the most established centers for refugees in San Antonio, is pristine, organized, and streamlined. Once entering the glass-walled rectangle building, a spiral staircase to the left leads to the second floor. Past large double doors is an array of cubicles. We met with Ortiz, as well as Saif Fadhil, Employment Assistant Director for Refugees Services. Ortiz took us to the back wall, where office rooms were neatly hidden. Her office, shared with Fadhil, is a nice size cluttered with office materials, candies, boards with paper clippings, a calendar, printer, and child drawings on the wall behind her desk.

The majority of the people working with the Refugee Resettlement Program began as refugees. For example, Fadhil is an Iraqi refugee and an environmental engineer who got a job with Catholic Charities. San Antonio does not have job opportunities for him to follow his career goals, but with his good English and university studies he qualified to work with the organization. As a refugee himself, Fadhil understands how difficult yet extremely important it is to attain employment. “It is meaningful to see refugees starting off as waiters to become managers and grow to sustain their family,” he said. Fadhil also highlighted that San Antonio employers are quite receptive of refugees as they witness their determination to build a better life for their families. “We focus on our families to become self-sufficient, to become independent. We try to give them the skills to navigate the system independently. When you have kids, you want them to be contributing members of society. That is what we are trying to teach our families,” Ortiz said.

In contrast to the formal edifice of Catholic Charities RAICES’ installations present a significant disparity. However, what for many may look like a low-grade house, to others it has become a beacon of humanitarianism and social entrepreneurship. This gated three story pink and beige house, is now the new headquarters of the organization. Once we arrived, Einas Albadri saw us from her office window, one out of many surrounding the house, and greeted us warmly. Albadri had arrived to the U.S. as a refugee in 2010 from Iraq. She had worked for 5 years at Catholic Charities, but now heads the new refugee resettlement program at RAICES. Albadri gave us a tour of their headquarters, an antique house with wooden floors and elaborate staircases. The house was donated by a generous member of the community that believed in RAICES’ cause.

Raices Panel
A panel hosted at RAICES’ new headquarters. The panelists, including city Councilman Rey Saldaña and Assistant City Manager María Villagómez, discussed the rights of all immigrants in San Antonio, TX.

Given the increasing demand for refugee services in San Antonio, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) authorized RAICES to begin a refugee resettlement program. Since RAICES had experience working with refugees and had the expertise in providing legal services that could help the refugee community in the long-run, they were the most viable candidate for the task. The program opened its doors last year, a time that Albadri describes as “a crazy time in the life of the refugee,” due to the travel ban and the refugee cap. The number of people RAICES serves has increased dramatically since last year.

At the beginning of 2018, RAICES’ projected number of clients for the entire fiscal year which is from Oct. 1 2017  and Sept. 31 2018, was 120. After further consideration, their partnering national agency, USCRI, increased it to 145. San Antonio is a good fit for resettlement because of the variety of refugee communities. “For example, we have an Afghani community, a Burmese community, a Congolese community, a Syrian community, so it has made a perfect environment to grow this program,” Albadri said. Although Albadri has not had any Syrian clients, in her work at Catholic Charities, she helped around 50 Syrians. She observed that there was indeed an increase in the number of Syrian people seeking refugee status in the U.S. after the Civil War in Syria in 2011.

Challenges Refugees Face in the United States

Costantino explained that an array of problems affect refugee populations in San Antonio. Many women do not know their rights in the U.S. and therefore, tolerate abusive relationships. Refugees are also skeptical of police officers (CRS invites police officers to help build trust with the refugee community). Refugees are also most susceptible to scams as sometimes they are newly exposed to fake offers in the mail or email. Family dynamics in refugee families also may become strained as parents find it difficult to discipline their children. “Kids begin to see a power reversal, where they begin to have more power than the families. Parents do not know and they are afraid. They do not want to get in trouble. American culture can be very toxic to any family. But, people need to learn how to handle freedom, because sometimes it can be destructive,” Costantino said. CRS helps families navigate these difficult situations.

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Recreational activities for refugee children hosted at the Center for Refugee Services.

Ortiz explained that it is important for San Antonians to understand the circumstances refugee families came from. Many had neither indoor plumbing nor electricity in their cement and brick homes. Further, refugees have different cultures and habits that could potentially be alienating; families from Afghanistan and Syria have traditional and rigid views on gender roles. Oftentimes, one of their tasks is to inform women that they can do many things in America such as get an education, take classes, learn English, drive a car and get a job. Regarding men, they try to inform them that women are allowed to do all those things in America. As the only culture that they know, it is incredibly difficult to suddenly shift lifestyles.

Ortiz also discussed how some cultural groups, like the Syrians, may face unique challenges such as coping with trauma. Most refugees are constantly moving from their homes as the airstrikes and bombings continue. Even at safe shores such as IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) tents, or camps on the border, they lack the very basic needs that we tend to take for granted. It is especially frightening to be in a completely new environment and it is important for Americans to understand that. There is the shock that comes from the social differences between the U.S. and Syria. There is a fear of losing their family values and way of life, which explains why most Syrians stay in neighboring Arab countries as the culture shock is less extreme.

“It is difficult for them to integrate into society because, they don’t have that immigrant mentality, it is a mentality of somebody who left without their choice, and many times after having experienced or witnessed extreme trauma. So these are not easy things to overcome,” Sergie explained. Her remarks greatly coincided with our experience meeting the Syrian refugee family, especially regarding the language barrier and culture. Sergie argued that psychological trauma can arise not only from fleeing violence, but also the shift in lifestyle. Refugees have been stripped of their autonomy and labeled as a refugees with little control over their future or their social status.

The language barrier is also most difficult for Syrian and Afghani populations to overcome. Despite the streamlined process that refugees go through, it is almost impossible for most refugees to learn the language and integrate culturally in just six months. Ortiz stated that they must teach survival English so that they can at least go through job interviews, buy groceries, and apply to other services.

San Antonio’s problems for all residents – affordable housing, healthcare, low wage jobs, and other problems – pose challenges for refugees as well.

A Syrian Refugee Family in San Antonio

We met with a Syrian refugee family in their homey and modern apartment complex twenty minutes from downtown San Antonio. As we arrived, Mohamad and his wife greeted us at the door warmly and with two kisses on each cheek. Mohamad, tall with dark hair and a beard, wore a yellow polo shirt and gray dress pants and; his wife Om Khidro had golden string earrings, a red shirt and long black skirt.

As we sat down in the dark brown chairs, Om Khidro, set a small table beside us with a plate of Syrian cookies, sweet and bitter with the sesame seeds and tea. We admired their hospitality as they gave us small apple slices and she even offered us coffee. Om Khidro spoke to us energetically and sharply in Arabic; her husband, with a calm demeanor and soft yet masculine tone also spoke with us in Arabic. Their son, Hamza, also joined us after a while. The shy boy, just in elementary school, soon sat on the sofa with us, listening to our conversation. Wearing a blue hoodie sweater and jean pants, he sat quietly playing with his yellow and black toy fidget spinner.

During the war in Aleppo, a bomb fell in front of Mohamad’s catering shop while he was inside. On that day, 35 people died and he came out with a leg injury. He has had the disability for seven years. After leaving Syria, his family first stayed in Turkey for a few years until they were informed of their acceptance to the U.S. Although he received help and treatment with his disability in the U.S. allowing him to walk without crutches, Mohamad cannot work for a long time standing up without feeling acute pain. This has detrimentally affected his ability to provide for his family. He is currently unemployed.

“The people who are capable of working survived, and now can pay their rent and get food and clothes for their kids… but I am struggling with my disability,” he said. Mohamad explained he had greater opportunities in Turkey for employment because of the similar culture as he had opened a small food store. “It was easier for me in Turkey, since it is popular, it has a lot more Syrians that helped out, and has a community similar to the one back home in Syria,” he said.

The family received much help for the first six months at Catholic Charities, where Mohamad found his first job at a restaurant. However, he could not stand for more than five hours at this job. Nevertheless, they are able to maintain themselves by the help of their two oldest children who work at local restaurants. “My kids are young, and two of them (the teenagers) are working, and they are the ones that are helping pay the bills and get food. Both are great chefs, and their skills in cooking got them the job at the restaurant. I taught them everything I know, and I wish to open a food truck here as a business in order to move forward in life, but things are not easy. I wish I could get a job in order to start this dream. I just want to get the kids to the shore of safety, where they feel secure and are moving forward in life. This is all for their sake,” he said.

Both parents care deeply about their children’s education. They are concerned about the burden of their two oldest sons supporting their family while balancing their studies. Still, the family is grateful to the welcoming and respectful people of San Antonio, as they have not experienced direct discrimination. One of the greatest struggles for Mohamad is also his inability to understand the language. He explained his frustration about his social status.

Moving from a very social culture in Syria, to a new country where some people never speak to their neighbors, has isolated the family. 

Om Khidro told us how suffocated she felt when she moved to the new apartment because she had no one around her to talk to. She decided to talk to her upstairs neighbor one day and she dressed in her hijab and went up to her door, a very common thing to do back in her hometown. She explained that the lady greeted her with fear in her eyes.

“She took a couple steps back and didn’t know how to talk to me,” she said. Culture shock can go both ways. The U.S. may also have a culture of fear towards refugees, which stems from the lack of communication and outreach.  

Mohamad expressed how his family does not regularly follow U.S. news, considering many of their other priorities and much of the stress their family continues to face. However, they do keep up with the violent events in Syria, such as the recent intensive bombing of Eastern Ghouta, one of the deadliest with a death-toll of over 200 in two days. The family still has family in Aleppo, but know that they are never returning. For now, Mohamad and his family are grateful to live in the safety and security of their homes. Despite their current struggles to achieve the American dream in San Antonio, they rest their hopes in their children and education. 

As we left our interview, we gave Om Khidro a ride to a community gathering of other Syrian refugees at a nearby park. She dressed in her black and lavender lace hijab and grabbed her Hello Kitty purse. Her son also joined us, still holding on to his fidget spinner. At the moment we dropped them off at the park and they jogged their way  to the gathering, we reflected on our experience. Hoping that the family would find their way through our American culture, we realized that despite the stark differences in culture, they are just like any other family, seeking a community, self-determination, and a sense of belonging.

Zabdi Salazar is a junior Political Science and Business Administration major and the Director of Business operations for The Contemporary. Daniela Montúfar-Soria is an International Economics and Global Politics major. Yara Samman is a senior Biology major. The writers attend Trinity University.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

The cover photo was taken by Xinhua of a Syrian refugee walking in downtown Homs, Syria. It is under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

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