On July 28, 41-year-old Omaia, her husband and three of their four children became the first refugees of the Syrian Civil War to arrive in New Haven.
Since then, an additional three families have arrived in New Haven, and another will arrive sometime this week. But Omaia’s 22-year-old son, who was separated from the family after joining the Syrian military, remains stuck in Azraq, a refugee camp in the Jordanian desert.
On Monday, the family — which does not want its surname or home city to be published for fear of exposing relatives and friends in Syria to reprisal attacks — got the chance to ask Sen. Chris Murphy if there was anything he could do for the son. Murphy held a private 15-minute meeting with roughly 25 refugees at East Rock’s Integrated Refugee and Immigration Services and also hosted a press conference. The senator, who visited a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan earlier this month, repeated his call for the United States to open its doors to 50,000 Syrian refugees, on top of the roughly 75,000 refugees who arrive annually from all over the world.
“We’ve already taken some Syrian refugees in Connecticut, but only a few and we have the resources to do it,” Murphy said at the press conference. “The best thing I heard today is that this nonprofit has been receiving calls from all over the state, from families willing and ready to take in refugees if the U.S. government just makes the decision to do it.”
IRIS Executive Director Chris George echoed Murphy’s remarks in an interview with the News, saying resettlement organizations like his, which operate with a mix of public and private funding, are flexible enough to accommodate an influx of refugees. George said Connecticut takes in about 550 refugees annually, roughly 40 percent of whom become clients of IRIS, a Connecticut-based organization that works to resettle roughly 200 refugees each year. IRIS also provide some services to asylees and other immigrants — including job and tutoring assistance, legal services, and counseling. The other 60 percent of refugees are split between resettlement agencies in Hartford and Bridgeport.
Murphy’s proposed 50,000 additional refugees represent a significant increase over the Obama administration’s plan — announced last week — to open its doors to 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year. Since the civil war in Syria began in 2011, only 1,500 Syrians have settled in the United States, due in part to a vetting process for refugees that can take as long as a decade, Murphy said. He proposed reallocating $500 million that the U.S. is currently spending to train Syrians to fight ISIS as a way to help expedite the process of resettling refugees in the country.
George said he has seen a dramatic increase in the number of people offering assistance to IRIS and believes that, if the U.S. were to accept substantially more refugees, IRIS could provide sources for those additional individuals.
Speaking through a translator — 48-year-old Maisaa, who arrived in Connecticut 18 years ago — Omaia said her children are attending public school, and the family lives in an apartment in West Haven just above Maisaa’s. They fled Syria three years ago, when the Syrian government began bombing their town indiscriminately, destroying schools, hospitals, and houses.
Omaia’s children are attending public school, and the family lives in an apartment in West Haven just above Maisaa’s place.
“We were living a peaceful life, with jobs and a house,” Omaia said. “Then all of the sudden something crazy happened.”
The family heard that just days after they left their home, it was destroyed by a bomb. They walked to Jordan and crossed the border in a car. Like the majority of Syrian refugees in Jordan, according to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, the family did not live in a camp. Even so, life was difficult.
According to Omaia, Syrians in Jordan are not allowed to work, and if they are caught with a job they may be sent to jail or even deported back to Syria. Refugee children are not able to attend school in Jordan.
Though Omaia and millions of other Syrians have been displaced for years, it was only last month that Syria’s festering refugee crisis — some 4 million have fled the country — exploded onto international headlines with the news that 71 Syrians were found dead, suffocated inside a bus in the Austrian countryside. Earlier this month, the photograph of a small Syrian boy drowned on a beach in Turkey, meanwhile, triggered outrage and handwringing across the globe. Murphy underscored not only the moral imperative to take in additional refugees, but also the strategic benefits of doing so.
“Germany is taking 800,000 Syrian refugees and the United States is taking 1,500,” Murphy said at the press conference. “My worry is that if the United States doesn’t bring these refugees here from the Middle East right now when the danger is the highest, I think it says something very dark about the U.S., but I also think that it endangers us in the region. We start to lose credibility as a leader in the Middle East if everyone else is bearing their share of the burden and the U.S. is refusing to bear ours.”
Though Murphy’s speech was informed by global concerns and the horrors of war and deprivation, the scene inside IRIS yesterday was calm and strikingly intimate. Public schools in New Haven were closed for Rosh Hashanah, so many of the attendees brought their children. Omaia’s 8-year-old daughter watched “Cinderella” in a playroom while her mother listened to Murphy’s remarks, and another young IRIS client worked on a puzzle depicting a fire truck.
Suleiman Chater, the manager of Mamoun’s Falafel on Howe Street and the nephew of Mamoun himself, delivered free falafel for attendees. Chater immigrated to the United States from Syria in 1979, when he was 10 years old. He stayed to hear Murphy speak with the refugees.
“He’s trying to help but I think like everybody else we were caught off guard [by the refugee crisis],” Chater said. “So now we gotta hurry up and help out.”
Chater said he feels sympathy for the Syrian refugees because they do not speak English. Omaia said the language barrier has been the most difficult part of life in America so far.
The family applied for refugee status with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees about a year and a half ago. At the time, they didn’t know which country they might end up in.
“When they told them they were going to the United States, they were scared because they didn’t know what was going to happen,” Maisaa said of Omaia and her family. “When they got here, they felt safe.”
Still, they worry for their son back in Jordan. Omaia said he tells them that the camp is too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. There is not enough food and little healthcare. Omaia said they asked Murphy if he could help bring their son to New Haven. But even a United States senator cannot easily overcome thousands of miles, a transnational web of bureaucracy and persistent American fears that newcomers from the Middle East might pose a security risk. For now, Omaia’s son will remain one of the 23,000 residents of Azraq desperately seeking a way out.