CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - On a cool, cloud covered July evening, the night sky above the modest Chicago apartment Hasna Marza shares with her 8-year-old daughter Samaa, erupted in massive explosions. It was their second week of living in the United States.
“At first, we were very scared in the house," Marza told VOA through an Arabic translator, "but then I knew that these were fireworks, so I opened the window and showed Samaa that these were just fireworks, and it’s not like we’re in a war — we’re not in Syria.”
But the Independence Day fireworks provided a stark reminder of the environment they had fled in Syria.
“One time when we were leaving, there were tanks outside the village. We saw tank fire, and we were hiding in a ditch, and we ran and hid in a forest, and we saw death, and we saw attacks and bodies on the street… essentially everything you can imagine, we’ve seen.”
The worst, Samaa told VOA, was a harrowing experience in their suburban Damascus home that left her, a 4-year-old at the time, traumatized.
“At the time we were between the two fighting sides,” she recalled, vividly remembering the tank and artillery shelling that rattled their home. “We went down to the basement, and a rocket hit another floor, but we were OK.”
“Samaa saw all of this happening and her psychological condition went to zero," Hasna said. "It was very bad, and every time that you heard a plane or a tank you had to try to find a safe place to hide, maybe underneath the house, but we felt like there was nothing worth living for in that condition.”
So Hasna made the decision to flee like millions more enduring Syria’s six-year-long civil war. Through the help of a contact outside the country, Hasna and Samaa successfully reached Egypt on their third attempt. There, they waited through the lengthy process to resettle.
Last year, the United States pledged to welcome a total number of 85,000 refugees in 2016, an increase over previous years, in part to alleviate pressure on the international community to absorb the millions of Syrians fleeing that country’s civil war. As part of that number, the U.S. pledged to resettle up to 10,000 Syrian asylum seekers by the end of October.
Despite calls for a ban on Muslim immigrants and refugees by some lawmakers and Presidential candidates, about 5,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in the United States this year, many in the Midwest state of Illinois, which along with California and Michigan, represent the top three states now accepting Syrian refugees.
“It’s not a race towards a number; it’s a commitment to increase resettlement,” says Melineh Kano, Executive Director of Refugee One, the resettlement agency helping Hasna Marza and her daughter adjust to their new lives in the United States.
“The refugee resettlement program in the United States is not a fast track program,” she told VOA, emphasizing the U.S. State Department’s vetting process takes years before refugees like the Marzas are cleared for resettlement in the U.S.
Kano deeply understands the struggles of the refugees her organization assists. She is of Armenian descent, and was living in Iran during the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Facing persecution, she fled from Iran in the 1980s, and eventually resettled in the United States.
“We’re finding that with our Syrian population, they do need a little bit of time until they get used to their new environment, the new society they are in, before they are ready to go to work.”
Which is where Refugee One steps in, helping them find employment and a place to live, and offering guidance through many other issues refugees deal with, including treatment for those suffering from trauma caused by war.
“When you are dealing with individuals who are coming from fresh trauma, when you are dealing with individuals who are still shell shocked by what has happened to them, you know, mentally and physically they are not ready to hit the ground running,” Kano explained.
Like many agencies across the country, Refugee One relies on government funding and private donations to meet the needs of those they resettle. Kano says there has been an increase in the number of private donations and offers of assistance by people spurred to action after learning about the plight of many Syrian refugees on the news.
Kano says at the moment, Syrians do not represent the largest group of refugees her agency is resettling, but their numbers are growing.
“The flow has increased, you know for our own agency. Up until April, I think we had done about twenty plus families,” she told VOA. “Now we’re in the sixties.”
Kano says that number could reach 150 by October.
'O my nation...I love you'
In a small, cramped classroom just down the hall from Kano’s fourth floor city office, Hasna Marza is immersed in Refugee One’s English language classes. She is teamed up with another Arabic speaking refugee, and the class is filled with others from the Middle East and Africa. The goal for Marza is to learn enough English so she can find a job. She has been in the U.S. less than a month, and says the communication barrier is the hardest part of her transition. But Marza says she is just thankful to be safe. “The best thing is that there is safety and security, but of course in Syria, that’s what it was like before the war began.”
She hopes to return to that Syria in the future, when the war is finally over.
Although her husband died of cancer just before Syria’s civil war began, other members of Marza’s family still live in the midst of the conflict. She hopes one day, they can join her in the U.S.
“It would be wonderful, but I don’t know if it’s possible,” she says, and then pauses for a moment before breaking down, painfully reminded that she does not know when or if she will ever see her extended family again.
Samaa expressed her feelings and thoughts about her flight from her country — and her hopes to return — through Arabic poetry. The rough English translation reads:
“O my nation, I want to declare
That I love you
But they have banished me from you
And now I have come to say and echo
That I want a country where there is peace and safety
And where rays of sunshine will fall on me
And where sorrow lives
It is a beautiful place, which I love
And its name is Syria.”
About five million people who have fled Syria since the civil war began six years ago have registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Less then one percent of the millions seeking asylum will reach the United States.