Las Vegas Sun

October 21, 2019

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A Syrian family in Las Vegas shares its refugee story

Is Las Vegas a good city for relocation?

On the upside, Las Vegas has diverse residents, an abundance of entry-level jobs and affordable housing. On the downside, the valley lacks mental health resources. Refugees with severe trauma or PTSD likely wouldn’t be sent here.

How does the U.S. screen refugees?

1. Syrians who want refugee status must register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The U.N. also looks for vulnerable citizens, widows with small children or people who need ongoing medical assistance.

2. U.N. officials conduct interviews, then decide whether to grant someone refugee status.

3. The UNHCR refers cases to the U.S., sending cases officials believe the country is likely to accept. America’s approval rate is only about 50 percent. The process takes between 18 and 24 months.

4. The State Department and Department of Homeland Security collect biographic information and biometric information such as fingerprints and photographs for each refugee. The information is shared with the FBI and the Department of Defense and vetted. Single men from Syria and Iraq who are 16 to 50 years old typically are subjected to more intense scrutiny.

5. Biometric information is run through FBI, Department of Homeland Security and Department of Defense databases to determine whether the refugee has a criminal record or has applied for a visa overseas.

6. Syrian refugee applicants undergo an additional set of screenings called the Syria Enhanced Review. Officers ask detailed, repeated questions during multiple interviews to check people’s credibility. The interviews mainly take place in Amman, Jordan, and Istanbul, Turkey.

7. Every decision about whether to approve or deny a refugee application is reviewed by a supervisor. Some cases are referred back for additional review.

8. If a case is approved, the refugee undergoes a medical screening and attends cultural orientation classes. Meanwhile, his or her case is referred to one of nine resettlement agencies across the country, which determines where to send the refugees.

9. U.S. Customs and Border Protection conducts a final security check eight days before a refugee arrives in the United States and again once the refugee arrives on U.S. soil.

Mornings always are busy for the Alinas family. Safera and her husband, Khalid, make sure their five children are awake, fed, dressed and ready for school. Ratag and her twin brother Ali, both 6, attend Roundy Elementary School. Abdulkarem, 15, and Mohammed Noor, 11, go to Cashman Middle School. The youngest, Zen, is 2.

After dropping the kids off, Khalid heads to work at a warehouse near McCarran International Airport. Safera, 35, walks a few blocks to a friend’s house for coffee and English lessons.

“Time goes really fast, and then it is time to go pick up the kids and the day is over,” Safera says.

In the evenings, Safera cooks dinner, the children do their homework, and the family watches television. Sometimes they have friends over for dinner. Sometimes they visit with neighbors. There’s nothing unusual about their routine.

Perhaps all that sets the Alinases apart from any other family in Las Vegas is how they came here. They are refugees from Syria.

It has been eight months since the Alinas family arrived, and just as it is settling into new life in America, some in the state are questioning whether they should be here at all. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in mid-November in Paris, more than half of the nation’s governors, including Nevada’s Brian Sandoval, called for a halt to Syrian refugees settling in their states. During a news conference in Henderson, presidential candidate Ben Carson called for the FBI to monitor refugees and “not be afraid to pull the trigger.” On Nov. 19, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would create more stringent requirements for screening Syrian refugees.

All this despite the fact that all of the terrorists identified in the Paris attacks were European nationals — not Syrian refugees — and French President Francois Hollande said his nation would accept 30,000 refugees over the next two years, 6,000 more than he had promised to accept in September.

Fewer than 2,000 Syrian refugees have come to the United States since 2012. Of those, Nevada has taken nine. Safera, Khalid and their five children are seven of them.

Republicans worry terrorists could sneak into the country disguised as refugees. What happened to the Alinas family was far different. They didn’t choose the United States. The United States chose them.

• • •

Safera sets out a cup of Turkish coffee for a visitor and confesses that she hadn’t expected to live here.

“We had to Google it,” she says through a translator. “We read about its image as a sin city. But when we came here, we liked it. We did not feel it was a sin city.”

Safera paints an idyllic picture of Syria before the conflict began in 2011. The family lived in Homs, a city of 1.5 million near Lebanon. Summers were never too hot, winters never too snowy. The family had a bustling social life, surrounded by friends and family.

“Before the war, life in Syria was heaven on Earth,” Safera says. “Syria was safe and secure, and it was home.”

Then, everything changed.

The first difference, she said, was that members of the two Muslim sects in Syria, the Alawites and the Sunni, stopped engaging.

“Before the war, we interacted well together,” Safera said. “The war separated us, and our lives were never the same. We stopped greeting each other, stopped talking to one another.”

Fighting scorched Homs. Charred buildings were left half-standing next to piles of rubble and pockmarked earth. President Bashar al-Assad’s government laid siege to the city, which became known as the “capital of the revolution” for its regular anti-government protests. Gunfights in the streets and heavy shelling by the government were everyday occurrences. At some point, the residents stopped bothering to seek shelter.

“It was just normal,” Safera said. “We would get together like there was nothing wrong.”

One day, fighting between the government and the rebels came to the neighborhood where the family lived, and planes bombed the local school.

“After that, we were targeted, so we had no choice but to leave,” Safera said.

The family drove 200 miles to Amman, Jordan, and applied for refugee status with the United Nations.

That was in 2013. The people they left behind weren’t so lucky. Many who stayed, hoping the war soon would be over, now are trapped in the country. Others remain in refugee camps around the region or have joined a treacherous mass exodus to Europe.

The Alinas family rented a house in Amman. But soon, Jordan was overwhelmed by refugees. Today, there are more than 600,000 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan, a country of only 6.5 million people.

“There was so much pressure,” Safera said. “We didn’t have our own resources. We felt unwelcome.”

One day, the Alinases received a call from an official with the United Nations, asking them to consider moving to the United States. They were shocked and confused. They didn’t know they were being considered.

“When we got the news, my husband was asleep,” Safera said. “I woke him up and said, ‘Do you want to immigrate?’ ”

The family was subjected to an arduous vetting process. The Alinases interviewed in Amman with a staffer from the Department of Homeland Security, who grilled them about their life in Syria — their politics, their affiliations with armed groups and why they left.

“They’d ask you repetitive questions, to see if you were lying,” Khalid said.

The United States accepted them. They took classes in Jordan on American culture. For instance, you can’t slaughter a goat in your front yard, like you can in Syria. The family laughs about that now.

Only at the very end of the process did the Alinases learn their new home would be Las Vegas. Safera said she was scared by the city’s reputation, “but I would have been scared in any other city or state.”

On March 24, the family set out on 17 hours of flights to the United States — Amman to Dubai to Los Angeles to Las Vegas. As soon as they stepped off the plane at LAX, Safera said her first thought was, “We are foreigners in a foreign land again.”

What happens once a refugee gets to Las Vegas?

1. Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada is the recognized state refugee office.

Before the refugees’ resettlement, Catholic Charities receives biographical data for each refugee, as well as information about whether he or she has friends or family in the area. Agency officials then determine whether the refugee is a good fit for the community and whether the community can accommodate the refugee’s needs.

2. Once the agency approves the refugee, it can take one week to more than a year for the refugee to arrive. If Catholic Charities denies the refugee’s application, the refugee’s case is sent to other cities for consideration.

3. One to two weeks before a refugee’s arrival, Catholic Charities receives an arrival notice which gives the agency time to secure housing, furnish the apartment and prepare to meet the refugees at the airport. There are guidelines for the types of apartments refugees are given; they must be close to public transportation, schools, work and markets, and be safe and affordable.

The State Department provides Catholic Charities with $2,025 to resettle each refugee. Of that, the refugee receives $1,000 in one-time direct assistance funds. The state department requires local agencies to provide refugees basic furniture such as a bedroom set, living room set and dining room set, and personal hygiene products. If Catholic Charities doesn’t have enough donations to cover those items, the agency can use some of the $1,000 in direct assistance funds to pay for the items.

4. Catholic Charities representatives pick up refugees at McCarran International Airport, take them to their new homes, introduce them to their landlord and give them a brief cultural orientation. For instance, if the refugee comes from an area without electricity, aid workers teach them how to turn a light switch on and off.

5. For the first two to three weeks, agency officials visit with the refugees daily. Each refugee is assigned a case manager who helps the refugee identify and address barriers to self-sufficiency. The case manager also connects the refugee with community resources. A job developer helps the person find a job.

6. During the first 30 days, refugees go through a Catholic Charities orientation and a cultural and training workshop to learn local customs and practices. Catholic Charities also offers English language classes, funded by the Nevada Department of Education.

7. Refugees are eligible for case management and employment services for up to five years after their arrival. “However, (the refugees) are pretty enthusiastic in working and pretty resilient. So after they obtain their first jobs, they’re pretty independent from there,” said Carisa Lopez-Ramirez, vice president of immigration and migration services at Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada.

8. Should they need extra assistance before finding a job, refugees are eligible for public assistance through the Office of Refugee Resettlement or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.

But they were welcomed. Once in Las Vegas, Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, the organization responsible for overseeing refugee resettlement in Nevada, helped move the family into an apartment. Safera said her neighbors were welcoming. A man from Somalia who lives nearby introduced them to an English tutor. They met other Syrian families in the valley, although there aren’t many.

Safera rattles off the names of places where she knows people — Michigan, Texas, Boston, California — all with Syrian communities larger than Las Vegas’.

“In Michigan, it reminds them of Syria,” she says.

Still, the family has found unexpected kindness here. Safera says people are patient and go out of their way to help, even if they don’t speak Arabic.

“They’re always smiling,” Safera says.

One neighbor takes them to doctor’s appointments and job interviews. She doesn’t speak Arabic, but Safera says they understand each other.

“She came out of nowhere, like an angel,” Safera says.

• • •

Home-cooked food is a small comfort for the Alinas family. Safera finally found a Mediterranean market so she can make mulukhiyah, a leafy green vegetable and meat dish, and makdous, eggplant stuffed with pepper paste, walnuts, olive oil and salt.

One day, the family would like to return to Syria, but, for now, it is too dangerous.

“My No. 1 goal is for my kids’ future, their education and their safety, that one day they can be U.S. citizens, where wherever they want to go, they’re not labeled as Syrian refugees but citizens,” Safera says.

Safera and Khalid encourage their children to talk about life in Las Vegas — in English.

“It’s good, nice,” Abdulkarem says.

“Friends,” Ratag says.

Ali hides in the bedroom. The thought of speaking English drives him to tears.

A small television in the corner of the living room is the family’s only window to home. They have some family left in Syria but aren’t able to communicate with them. On the news, they see images of the unlucky, those who weren’t accepted into another country and try to cross the sea into Greece illegally. It’s hard to watch.

“That’s my country,” Safera says, tearing up. “Just remembering it rips my heart.”

She says her last name means “the sleepy ones.” She shakes her head and laughs. She thinks her first name fits her new life better.

“Safera means ambassador,” she says. “I’m an ambassador.”

Nevada politicians on Syrian refugees

Almost half of U.S. governors have objected to Syrian refugees resettling in their states, but state officials have no legal authority to stop refugees from resettling within their borders. Refugee resettlement is handled at the federal level. State agencies can make the resettlement process more difficult, though, as they play a role in transitioning refugees into their new lives in the state.

• Rep. Joe Heck (R): “America has always welcomed refugees, and we will continue to be a place where individuals fleeing oppression or persecution can find peace and safety. But the foundation of any refugee resettlement plan must be the security of the American people.” (Nov. 19)

• Rep. Cresent Hardy (R): “My heart breaks for the Syrian people, but we cannot let compassion expose us to the ill will of ill men. In light of last week’s events in Paris, our first priority needs to be the safety of the American people. There are those who would take advantage of America’s generosity if we let them.” (Nov. 19)

• Sen. Harry Reid (D): “Our government accepts only the most vulnerable of the Syrians — survivors of violence and torture, those with severe medical conditions, and women and children. But security precautions are not taking a backseat in the process.” (Nov. 19)

• Gov. Brian Sandoval: “I am specifically concerned about the background checks performed for Syrian refugees sent to Nevada for resettlement, and I would appreciate further guidance on the benefits eligibility of such persons while they reside here. I would also request that until your administration has completed the review of these programs, no additional Syrian refugees be admitted for resettlement in Nevada.” (Nov. 16)

• Rep. Mark Amodei (R) “Americans are compassionate people, but it is not unreasonable to ask the administration to take measures to ensure our compassion is not exploited. Protecting Americans is paramount, and this is an obvious vulnerability. It is not xenophobic to say so, and I resent the implication.” (Nov. 18)

• Rep. Dina Titus (D): “While I will continue to work with my colleagues and the administration on ways to improve the vetting process for refugees from around the world, I cannot support politically motivated legislation that sends the wrong message to our allies, misdirects critical resources and abandons our proud tradition of being a safe harbor for the most vulnerable in search of better lives.” (Nov. 19)

• Sen. Dean Heller (R): “While I recognize the merits of assisting refugees during a time of crisis, I also need assurances that the safety of Nevadans will not be compromised as a result of accepting refugees. Unfortunately, at this time, there are too many unanswered questions about the effectiveness of this program and ultimately the number of Syrian refugees who may have come to our state after being resettled elsewhere in the United States.” (Nov. 16)

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