By Josh Rosenblatt, Sean Robson, and Allie Wahl DEWITT, N.Y. (NCC News) – Brahim Al-Amir sat upright in his chair with a tired look on his face. A 20-year-old DeWitt resident, Al-Amir was nevertheless happy to sit down and discuss how he immigrated to Syracuse from Syria only five years ago.
He pondered what the greatest cultural difference between Syria and the United States was. He sat back in his chair while thinking of the answer, fiddled with the cross dangling from his neck and responded with one simple word.
“Freedom,” Al-Amir said.
The biggest difference wasn’t the food, the music or a million other small cultural differences, Al-Amir said. That’s because despite the vastly different governments and current country circumstances, Al-Amir knows that Americans and Syrians are mostly all the same.
A Country Torn Apart
For Al-Amir, sound is a very important thing. Even growing up in Maherdah, Syria, before the Syrian Civil War started in 2011, he would still hear gunshots and the explosions of missiles every few weeks. Since he’s come to the United States, those sounds are nothing but a distant memory, yet it’s something that he still lives with each and every day.
“Even when (Syria) is at peace, you still think it’s going to break out into war tomorrow,” Al-Amir said.
Reaching the land of the free and the home of the brave was nothing short of an odyssey for Al-Amir and his family. Al-Amir was six when his father first applied for immigration in 2002. His family finally arrived in the United States in 2010 eight years later, just one year before the war broke out in Syria.
This eight-year gap is by no means unusual for immigrants or refugees waiting for entry into this country. In fact, by many standards, eight years is a quick turnaround. Beth Broadway, CEO of InterFaith Works, said that it often takes more than 20 years for refugees to arrive in Syracuse, especially from countries like Bhutan. The reason, she explained, is the lengthy application process.
In order for people to enter this country as certified refugees, Broadway said that they must go through 13 to 15 steps first, starting with leaving their home country and arriving at a refugee camp run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Next, they have to register as a refugee at the camp and apply for resettlement. After that, they face long hours of repetitive interviews on every aspect of their lives.
“This is the most highly vetted, highly secure program in the world,” Broadway said. “If terrorists are coming from Syria, it will not be through the refugee resettlement program.”
Even though he was just a kid when his parents were going through the similar immigration process, Al-Amir is all-too familiar with the long, tedious hours the immigration process takes.
“There’s a lot of paperwork, background research, they give a lot of names and birthdates. They ask about everything, even aunts and uncles I don’t know,” Al-Amir said.
The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State hold the initial rounds of interviews at the refugee camps. If the potential refugees pass through the entire vetting process, the International Office of Migration gives them a referral to help place them with one of 11 national voluntary organizations, Broadway said. All in all, only about one in four refugees is accepted for resettlement in the U.S., Broadway said.
Refugees Have a Local Impact
Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner signed a letter in September, along with 17 other mayors from across the country, urging President Barack Obama to accept more Syrian refugees. In his latest address to the nation, Obama pledged to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years.
New York is the third largest state for the resettlement of refugees in America and about 1,100 refugees come to Syracuse every year, Broadway said. She added that Syracuse as a city is, for the most part, extremely welcoming toward immigrants and refugees. About half of them are resettled by InterFaith Works, and the other half are resettled by the Syracuse branch of Catholic Charities, the other local organization that helps provide assistance to the city’s refugees, Broadway said.
Most of Syracuse’s refugees come from Burma, Bhutan, Cuba, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan/Darfur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Broadway said. While there are currently no Syrian refugees in the organization’s pipeline, Broadway expects them to start arriving within the year.
These refugees have a major impact on the Syracuse economy as well. Broadway said that 65 percent of refugees have employment after five months. Abdul Saboor, the match grant coordinator at InterFaith Works and a former refugee from Kabul, Afghanistan, said that 88 to 90 percent of refugees that go through his program have jobs after six months. The match grant program matches government grants with donations from the local community, Saboor said.
Local businesses are the main driving factor behind this high rate of employment. The largest local employers of refugees are Stickley Audi & Co. Furniture, St. Joseph’s Hospital and Loretto Healthcare, Broadway said. She emphasized the strong sense of community within Syracuse as a major factor.
“(The businesses) understand what it means to be part of the global system,” Broadway said.
Broadway lauded the faith and healthcare communities as being involved in helping refugees adapt to their new environment, adding that the Syracuse City School District is helpful too.
Syracuse Provides a Critical Education
Mid-December is finals week for millions of college students across the country, and as a sophomore biology major at Le Moyne College, Al-Amir is flooded with work.
“I have so many papers and tests this week it’s not even funny,” Al-Amir said with a rueful chuckle.
The amount of work he has now reminded Al-Amir of when he first arrived in the United States. Like many fellow immigrants, Al-Amir didn’t speak a word of English when he arrived to Syracuse.
“Coming to a new place is scary,” Al-Amir said. “You don’t know what you’re going to see. My first year or two I was antisocial because I was scared to talk to people.”
Al-Amir attended Nottingham High School and said the students and teachers were extremely friendly and helpful. He credited Don Little, a social studies teacher at the school, as someone who went above and beyond to help him. Little, who taught Al-Amir in 10th and 11th grades, lauded Al-Amir’s work ethic as a student.
“[Al-Amir] stood out as a really hard working kid, a teacher pleaser, someone who comes to class [and] is there on time,” Little said.
Little also explained how he empathized with Al-Amir and other foreign students, saying that if he were in a situation similar to that of some of his students, he would also need help.
“If someone put me on a plane and dropped me in central Russia, how would I function? I’d need kindness, I’d need time, I’d need all sorts of small things that all of humanity need,” Little said.
Al-Amir also credited the drama program at Nottingham as being a good way for him to de-stress and get acclimated to his new environment. Bill Ralbovsky, current head of Nottingham’s drama department, said that while it’s often hard for the school’s immigrants and refugees to perform in the shows because of the language barrier, he believes in his students.
“I do [believe], probably more than they do,” Ralbovsky said with a laugh.
Showing His True Faith
As a Syrian immigrant, Al-Amir might be among the minority here in the United States, but it wasn’t much different when he was living in Syria. Growing up as a Christian in Syria, Brahim was among 10 percent of the Syrian population, according to the CIA World Factbook.
Though Al-Amir and his family came to America with the idea of living a better life, he believes religion also played a big role. Discussing religion was not something he could easily do while growing up in Syria. Free speech wasn’t allowed by Bashar Al-Assad’s authoritative Islamic regime in Syria even before the war started, Al-Amir said.
“In Syria, if you say Islam is not a peaceful religion, you’re dead,” Al-Amir said.
Al-Amir said it is often hard to tell the good guys from the bad, but that doesn’t mean you should paint Syria with a broad stroke.
“You can’t generalize. There are good and bad people everywhere,” Al-Amir said.
Al-Amir has faith that his sisters, still in Syria with their families, will one day be able to come to the U.S. He has faith that with the help of a foreign government, Syria can once again know peace, Al-Amir said. He has faith that even though he is 5,572 miles from his home in Maherdah, at Le Moyne College, he is just like every other student.
He’s Changing Perceptions on Normalcy
Wearing a flannel and carrying a cellular biology textbook, Al-Amir feels at home on his campus. As both a full-time college student and a part-time worker at a local bar, Al-Amir is the real life embodiment of the American dream.
The distance between Syracuse to Maherdah is more than twice the distance from New York City to Los Angeles, so it is easy to see why many Americans find it hard to relate to people and events half a world away. Yet with one line, Al-Amir bridged the cultural gap between America and Syria.
“Yeah, we have pizza too in Syria,” Al-Amir said with a smile on his face. “It’s a little different, but mostly all the same.”
Like pizza, Al-Amir believes Americans and Syrians can be spoken about in the same terms: a little different, but mostly all the same.