Rama Saleh always intended on leaving her hometown of Aleppo, Syria — but she never imagined a civil war would be the catalyst for her departure.
In August, the 19-year-old arrived in Miami, with her parents, brother and two sisters. She had spent two years living in Turkey, where she worked 12-hour shifts in a T-shirt factory, six days a week, to help pay for her family’s rent and food.
Today, Saleh is looking forward to furthering her education. The war prevented her from finishing high school, so her goal is to pass the GED exam and enter college. And while she is determined to create a better future for herself, the memories of her family’s escape still haunt her.
“It was like [those] action movies,” said Saleh, sitting in her Fort Lauderdale bedroom, recalling the 2013 trip across the Syrian-Turkish border that she made with about 50 to 70 people. “It was the start of winter, and one week before we left [for] Turkey it was snowing.”
After paying about $200 per person to be smuggled into Turkey, the family was transported to a rural outpost in Syria that was about an hour’s distance from the Turkish border — by foot. They traveled at night, and trudged through fields, scaled hills and climbed over fences.
Abdulhamit Saleh, 50, Saleh’s father, suffered a stroke while in Syria. The stroke left him partially paralyzed; he was carried into Turkey by another refugee.
Once on the Turkish side of the border, smugglers picked them up and brought them to a bus stop, where they were picked up and brought to Istanbul. That is where the Salehs met up with family who had also left the country.
Saleh’s journey makes her one of the estimated 4.3 million registered refugees who have fled Syria since the conflict began in March 2012, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. And while many are fleeing to Turkey and Western Europe, they also are making their way to the United States.
President Barack Obama announced recently that the United States will admit at least 10,000 refugees from Syria in 2016.
Since January, Florida has taken in 104 Syrian refugees. Of those, 26 have been placed in the Miami area, according to the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.
Before a refugee arrives in South Florida, or any other location, they must first apply for resettlement with the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugee Office.
If it’s determined that resettlement is a better solution, the UN will refer individuals and families to countries taking in refugees. If the applicant passes a series of background checks and interviews, they will be permitted to enter a country for resettlement.
The potential host country conducts background checks and interviews. If approved for resettlement, resettlement agencies like the International Rescue Committee aids families, helping them transition to their new country.
Once they’re here, they can start a new life. ... They feel they’re out of harm’s way, and that they can build a future for their children.
Suzy Cop, executive director of the Miami and Tallahassee offices of the International Rescue Committee
Saleh and her family took this path to come to America; the process took about two years.
For Mohamad, 46, who arrived in South Florida with his family in August, the process took about the same time. He requested that his full name not be used, owing to safety concerns about family in Syria.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) greeted both families, helping them with housing, furniture and other services. The families receive aid from the IRC for about 30 to 90 days, then are switched over to a federal self-sufficiency program called Matching Grants. This program, administered by the IRC, helps refugees with job placement, public transportation, education, English classes, etc. In general, families are helped for about six months.
Suzy Cop, executive director of the Miami and Tallahassee offices of the IRC, says many refugees are hopeful.
“Once they’re here, they can start a new life,” Cop said. “That’s one of the things they say, that they have hope for the future, they feel that they’re in the driver’s seat. They feel they’re out of harm’s way, and that they can build a future for their children.”
Mohamad and his family came to South Florida after fleeing Dara, Syria, in 2013. They lived in Irid, Jordan, for two years. Mohamad, his wife Foza, 45, son Tamam, 24, daughter Taimaa, 18, and son Yousef, 14, lived in Miami until the beginning of the month when they moved to Orlando.
“I have no regrets for leaving because the situation there was very bad, especially for my children,” said Mohamad, 46, through a translator. “I know for sure if we had stayed it would have gotten worse for us and God knows what would have happened.”
In December 2012, Mohamed was home alone when gunfire was exchanged nearby. A bomb went off, causing a wall in his home to collapse on him, breaking his leg. (The family was also concerned that their son, Tamam, 24, was scheduled for mandatory military service.)
In January 2013 — while still in crutches — Mohamed and his family paid $1,200 per person to smugglers to make their way out of Syria by car, bound for Jordan. There, they stayed in the Za’atari refugee camp for a month, before getting an apartment.
“When we left Syria we had a little money with us,” Mohamad said. “We were able to manage a few months of rent with our savings.”
By the time they got approved to come to America, the family had been living in Jordan for about two years. They weren’t permitted to work in Jordan. To survive, they went through their savings and asked people in Syria to pay them back debts they were owed.
At one point, Tamam tried to find work in Lebanon but to no avail.
As Mohamed went over details of their journey, Foza, his wife, began to cry. When their daughter, Taima, was asked about the experience, she cried and left the room.
“It’s always tougher for the kids because they’re children after all,” said Safaa El-dannaoui, a volunteer interpreter with the Florida Refugee Assistance Committee.
El-dannaoui is from Lebanon and lived through that country’s civil war.
“I know how hard it is to leave your house — my house personally was bombed too,” she said. “And I can tell you I relive that almost every time I see one of those families over here. I feel their pain, and when you feel someone’s pain you can connect with them.”
Saleh was about 15 when the Syrian conflict began. She knows firsthand what it’s like to grow up in an age of war.
Over time, Saleh has taken on the role of caretaker in her family — or “manager,” as she calls it. When she thinks of her life before the war, she remembers frequent trips to the mall and hanging out with friends.
Once the conflict began, things changed — her house was destroyed and her school was only halfway standing when she last checked. During the bombing raids, they spent two days in a basement.
“We were scared of the bombs,” said Saleh, who used light from cellphones when staying in the basement. “When we left the room, we moved to another area that was safer.”
They moved to just outside of the Aleppo area, but that soon became unsafe, too. Fleeing the country was the only option, she said.
Saleh says she wasthrilled to learn they were going to America; she says she loves the English language.
Of course, landing in Miami was a shock — nothing like what she pictured.
“It’s too far from the sea,” she smiles.
After their arrival, the family learned that her mother’s breast cancer, which she developed in Syria, had spread to her bones. And just last week tragedy hit the family again, as they learned that Saleh’s 27-year-old cousin drowned when the boat she and her family were traveling on had sunk.
They were on their way to Greece when the boat capsized into the cold Mediterranean waters. Luckily, her cousin’s 1-year-old and 4-year-old children survived thanks to her husband, who held onto the children.
“I am very sad,” she said. “I wish to tell them they shouldn’t go in this way.”
As for her connection to her past life, she keeps in touch through social media with friends who have left the country. She still worries about those who remain in Syria.
“I have an uncle in Syria,” Saleh said. “I wish [for him] to come or to travel to another country; it’s unsafe.”
For now, Saleh is playing her role as “manager” of the family. At times, she says, the responsibility can be stressful, but she is hopeful.
“Sometimes I cry, but not too much,” she said. “I think I see in the future I will be happy; it will be better. I will be in a big home, I will be a doctor and my sisters will be lawyers — they love to study too much.”
How to help
To help Syrian refugees in their resettlement, visit www.rescue.org/miami and hit the donate button or visit FHII.com and select the refugee assistance program link.