PORTLAND, Maine — Nadir Alzoubi and his family fled Syria in the winter of 2012, just as his wife, Jamila, was about to give birth to their third child.
They crossed the border into Jordan on Dec. 19, beginning a desperate four-year journey that ended a few weeks ago when the family arrived in Portland. They are among the first 32 refugees of the Syrian civil war to be resettled in Maine, according to Catholic Charities of Maine, the agency that handles their transitions.
The challenges now facing the Alzoubi family are common to all refugees who come to Maine, said Tarlan Ahmadov, director of Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigration Services.
“There is no difference between Syrian, Iraqi, Somali and Russians [refugees],” Ahmadov said. “They are the most vulnerable people. They have fled their home because of terror. And we provide services no matter who they are.”
But those who have fled Syria may face an additional barrier of fear and mistrust from some Americans. In the wake of last year’s attack by Islamic State gunmen in Paris, France, a number of prominent Republican politicians, including Gov. Paul LePage and presidential nominee Donald Trump, called on the government to stop admitting Syrian refugees, insinuating that they might be terrorists.
“To bring Syrian refugees into our country without knowing who they are is to invite an attack on American soil just like the one we saw in Paris last week and in New York City on 9/11,” LePage said last November, though governors have no legal authority to block refugees.
Despite LePage’s hostility, Catholic Charities has helped six Syrian families begin rebuilding their lives in the Portland area since the beginning of this year. They’ve arrived as part of the Obama administration’s plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees within a year, a goal being reached this week.
In 2011 the Alzoubis’ home in the southern Syrian city of Dar’a was besieged by soldiers — who reportedly killed hundreds of civilians, including many children — as part of President Bashar al-Assad’s effort to quash anti-government protest. And by December 2012, with the conflict deepening, more Islamic State fighters passing through the area and his wife’s due date approaching, Alzoubi said he knew that they had to leave.
“There actually wasn’t a place for her to give birth,” the 36-year-old Syrian said, speaking through a translator. “There was no place that was safe or secure.”
The couple’s third daughter, Sundas, was born while the family was living in a tent in northern Jordan. While better than the war across the border, life in the refugee camp was hard, Alzoubi said. The encampment was overcrowded by the more than one million Syrians who had fled south. It was plagued by sanitation issues and children were dying from exposure to the winter cold and driving rain.
The family eventually moved to the northern Jordanian city of Mafraq, where their son, Omar, was born. While there, Nadir worked as a day laborer in an effort to supplement the insufficient monthly food rations they received.
“I used to get from the aid workers coupons for food, it was supposed to be 140 dinars [approximately $195] but they would only give me 60 dinars [approximately $85],” said Alzoubi. “Sixty dinars is nowhere near enough to buy the basic food you need for a family.”
The family survived this way for years, eking out a subsistence and applying for refugee status in other foreign countries.
Then, this summer, Alzoubi received word that they would be accepted in the United States. Five weeks ago, the six Syrians boarded a flight to Kiev, continuing from there to New York, and finally arriving late at night in Portland, where they were greeted by Catholic Charities case worker Nawar Alobaidi.
An Iraqi refugee who emigrated in 2012 with the help of Catholic Charities, Alobaidi said that refugees like the Alzoubi family, who come to the United States without family or friends here, face a daunting array of challenges. They can include wide cultural gulfs like learning English and meeting basic needs like finding a job or an apartment — but also more mundane aspects of daily life, like learning to how pay an electric bill or how a smoke detector works.
With the help of Catholic Charities and a group of supportive Portlanders, the Alzoubi family found an apartment and signed up for federal and state benefits to cover the cost of food, housing and health care. The next big hurdle they will need to overcome is language, Alobaidi said.
Nadir Alzoubi arrived in the U.S. speaking no English, but he is learning. He uses a translation app on his phone to communicate and will soon be starting adult English classes along with his wife. Likewise, Catholic Charities is in the process of helping the older Alzoubi children enroll in Portland’s public schools.
Refugees coming to the U.S. go through a multi-phase screening administered by the United Nation, U.S. State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and several other government agencies. The process includes lengthy interviews with trained Homeland Security officials and running the refugees’ fingerprints and biographic information through federal criminal and terrorism databases. Syrians receive an extra level of scrutiny, the details of which are classified. The vetting is done abroad and generally takes between 18 and 24 months, according to the State Department.
Asked about the politicians’ statement that refugees might be Islamic State terrorists, Alzoubi began briefly to cry.
“These people who left Syria, whether it’s in a boat or any other way, eating raw fish for days on end, I mean, you think they did this to conduct terrorist activities?” he said, his voice breaking. “They did this seeking safety for their family.”