Beginning again in Brooklyn: Syrian refugees start anew in Ridge with aid from Downtown do-good group

Beginning again in Brooklyn: Syrian refugees start anew in Ridge with aid from Downtown do-good group
Photo by Georgine Benvenuto

They got a new lease on a new life.

A Syrian refugee family who made it into the U.S. while President Trump’s travel ban was blocked by the courts is starting a new life in Bay Ridge with the help of a local organization that helps immigrants. The family, which arrived in the Ridge this past spring, is grateful for the chance to live in peace, largely thanks to the city’s first and largest Arabic-speaking social service agency, according to its youngest daughter.

“They’re so nice and friendly,” said 22-year-old Souzan Jwan Kanj of the staffers and volunteers at the Arab American Family Support Center.

The center, which was started in 1994 in Downtown, aims to help newly arrived refugees become self-sufficient and active members of their communities. The group launched a New Immigrants and Refugees Fund in July with the goal of supporting displaced individuals who settle in the New York area by helping to pay off their airfare costs — which all refugees must pay back to the State Department within three years — and providing them with mental health treatment services, English language courses, and job training, according to the head of the organization, who said that all donations to the fund go directly to services for the families.

“These are people’s neighbors and future contributors to society,” said Rawaa Nancy Albilal. “They have gone through so much and they deserve the best.”

The fund has helped 16 families so far — more than 65 people — including the Jwan Kanj clan, which paid back more than $1,200 of the $3,600-plus in airfare costs it owes the U.S. government with aid from its coffers. But the fund still needs to raise about $150,000 to relieve the rest of the families of their airfare debts.

The U.N. refugee agency gave the Jwan Kanj family about $4,100 upon arrival, but the family of four is still struggling, since refugees do not receive subsidized or discounted housing. Instead, they get help from relatives to pay $1,500 every month for their two-bedroom Ridge apartment, where their mother, Sadika, sleeps on the pullout couch in the living room.

The family had a fraught, five-year journey across three countries to reach the U.S., but its members never imagined they would have to uproot their lives and leave their home country, according to the oldest daughter.

“We were living a normal life, before the war,” said 26-year-old Amina.

The family first fled Syria for Turkey in October 2012, about a year after its only boy, the now 24-year-old Shirwan, started peacefully protesting against the oppressive regime with other students at his university in Aleppo. The group of kin fled Aleppo when Sadika began worrying that the protests would make her son a target of the regime.

Once they arrived in Istanbul, Shirwan supported his mother and two sisters by working at a factory while the matriarch applied for asylum in the U.S. through the United Nations. For the next four years, the family lived and worked in Turkey, slowly losing hope they would ever be approved to migrate to America. They even spent three days and nights lost in a forest in November 2013 after a smuggler swindled them out of hundreds of dollars, promising them that the wooded area would lead to the Bulgarian border — which was actually almost 200 miles away.

Once they made it out of the forest and returned to Istanbul, the family was in such a desperate state that they were prepared to make the perilous — and illegal — journey to Greece by sea. But as they made preparations for the trip, they finally received a long-awaited call from the United Nations with their approval to come to America.

Almost three-and-a-half years passed before the Jwan Kanj family was finally able to make the trip to the U.S., however, where the group arrived in New York on April 5 — despite thinking they would be barred from entering due to President Trump’s latest travel ban signed on March 6, according to Souzan.

“We had lost hope to come here,” she said.

Her sister added that they began losing hope last November, when President Trump was elected.

“I started to cry when Trump won,” Amina said. “We thought, ‘we’ll never go there.’ ”

And even though they were able to make it into the U.S. after President Trump’s two attempts at instituting a so-called anti-Muslim travel ban, the president’s inflammatory rhetoric about Muslims, refugees, and immigrants gave many Americans incorrect impressions of Syrians as well as a limited understanding of the significant challenges refugees face back in their home countries, according to Shirwan.

“After the ban, a lot of Americans think that all Syrians are terrorists,” he said.

Amina added that refugees are overwhelmingly innocent people who are trying to flee political strife, oppressive regimes, and dangerous living conditions in order to live in peace.

“Most of these countries need someone to help [refugees], because there’s a lot of people from these countries that deserve to leave,” she said.

And Albilal said that many refugees arrive in the U.S. with almost nothing but emotional wounds from tough journeys.

“Many fled overnight with just a bag and the clothes on their backs,” she said.

Shirwan, Amina, and Souzan are focused on finding jobs that can they can do while studying, because Shirwan and his sister, Amina, both want to go back to school in the U.S. Shirwan wants to study architecture, and Amina dreams of studying computer science at Columbia or New York University. Souzan, the youngest, is taking an English-as-a-second-language course at Kingsborough College in Manhattan Beach and eventually hopes to pursue a liberal arts education.

The family found flavors of its home country in the form of native treats and foods at Bay Ridge markets, thanks to the large Arab population in the nabe and the borough — which has the third-largest population of Arabs in the U.S., according to Albilal. And even though many of the New Yorkers the family has met have been kind and understanding, its members said they would also like to meet more Syrian people, to feel like they’re part of a community that can help them get through the tough times, according to Souzan.

“We want to meet more Syrian people,” she said. “It’s so hard to find Syrian people just to remind you of your country.”

But even though they miss parts of their old life in Syria, the resettled refugees know they cannot go back to their hometown — and they don’t want to, Shirwan added.

“It’s an impossible choice,” he said. “I don’t want to go back to that city. I hate it now.”

To donate to the Arab American Family Support Center and help the Jwan Kanj family and others like them, visit www.aafscny.org/ donate and choose “The New Immigrants and Refugees Fund” from the drop-down menu.

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcsh[email protected]nglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.