By Andrew Schmertz
Twelve-year-old Mohammed Djougal — who lost a leg and an arm — barely survived a bomb attack in his hometown in Syria. His father, Marwan Djougal, knew at that point, they had to escape the country and make it to the United States.
“It was an exploding barrel on the front door of our building. He was outside in the street and part of the barrel hit him and he lost his leg,” explained Marwan. “We left for Turkey at first, but before that we had to cut off the arm and the leg and some other issues happened in the process where he was in a really dangerous situation and he could have died.”
The family is about one of 15 who have escaped the Syrian civil war to settle in Paterson — which has a large Arabic community.
But U.S. hospitality is about to be tested. The December marketplace truck attack in Berlin and the New Year’s attack in Turkey have again focused attention on refugees here.
Gov. Chris Christie and President-elect Trump have called for halting new refugees, but Passaic County Freeholders Assad Akhtar and John Bartlett are leading the fight to bring more refugees here.
“These are moms and dads in their 30s and 40s, kids from newborns to teenagers. They’re just looking to get their lives back in order and put roots down in a place like Passaic County,” said Bartlett.
“These people are peaceful people. These people are just trying to make a living for themselves, to have safety and security in their lives. Again, this is a country made up of immigrants. So, whether it be Gov. Christie or President-elect Trump or whoever it may be, we’re not going to stand for this talk,” Akhtar said.
Before the refugees arrive in Paterson — or anywhere in the U.S. — they go through a vetting process at a refugee camp. But critics fear the process has holes in it that terrorists could slip through.
Refugees must first register with the United Nations and then undergo several interviews with the State Department. The U.S. will also conduct specific, enhanced background checks on Syrians. Then, if they clear, they may get in after waiting years.
Sikandar Kahn of the Global Emergency Response and Assistance, leads a refugee settlement group. He is a former contractor to U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan.
He said, “The refugees that we have here in the United States, especially here in Paterson, those are the individuals that spoke against the terrorist organizations. These individuals are very well educated, they’re very humble and they want to get involved here in the U.S.”
The Ismaiel family spent four years in a Jordanian refugee camp. Finally, they came to the U.S. so their son could get eye surgery.
“I like to thank God and hope is always there and one of the reasons we’re here is because of my kids and for their education and for their safety and for their future. Whenever my kids are happy, we are happy,” said Ayman Akrain Ismaiel.
Not everyone is coming from Syria. Twenty-seven-year-old Baraq Mirjan, who served as our translator for this story, has been in the U.S. just two weeks. He fled from Baghdad.
Mirjan said, “It’s quite a challenge actually. For me being a student in Jordan and waiting for my application to start. Since the two weeks I’ve been here it’s been really hard for me in the beginning. But meeting the people and the events that they did last week, it was really helpful and I met a lot of nice people and made a lot of friends.”
The federal government gives refugees a one-time payment of about $900 per person when they arrive. They have to live on that until others step in — or they find work to become self-sufficient. Not easy to do, when you don’t speak the language.
“The language gap is a huge challenge for refugees. For many immigrants, but particularly I think for families who probably didn’t expect to be here a year or two ago. The real way that we’re able to get that support to them is through volunteers,” Barlett said.
Akhter said, “We felt that this area is perfect to settle people in because the fact that there is a community around them. Specifically, an Arab-American community that could help settle them in.”
But the refugees have to get here first and that future may be as unsettled as ever.