For Good: Syrian refugees slowly find new homes in Tampa Bay areaFaith-based groups step up to help

Mohammed Aljajae sees the shocking human images of the Syrian war on American television and the internet.

Not that he needs to be reminded. Because he and his family have lived it.

“Devastating,” he says through a translator. “It is hard to even describe. The pictures don’t come close to how horrible it is.”

The bullets pinging off the outside walls of their apartment in Hama, on the banks of the Orontes River in west central Syria, was the last straw for Aljajae and his wife, Loubana. They wanted a future for their children. They fled their native country five years ago, making a harrowing escape. 

After living four years in a Jordan refugee camp, the Aljajaes were relocated to Tampa a year ago. The family of six -- which includes Falek, 12, Zafar, 14, Omar, 9 and YeYe, 4 -- had no money, no possessions, no grasp of the English language and no relatives in America.

What they did have, however, was a wide network of people helping them adjust to their new life -- from government agencies, social service organizations and volunteer groups who are stepping up efforts to work with persecuted Muslims and others from Arabic-speaking countries.

That includes a slow but steady influx of Syrians like the Aljajaes, who have completed the required rigorous screening and are starting to arrive.

“It’s really quite unimaginable to most of us what refugees go through when they first arrive,” says Dena Gross Leavengood, a community activist and a member of the Tampa Bay Refugee Advisory Group, an independent advocacy initiative. “And frankly, there’s not always good coordination among federal, state and local efforts. And it’s particularly difficult for this population, suffering through such a devastating war and ending up in a strange place where the culture is just so different.

“We can do better. We have to do better, if we truly want to give these people a chance at success.”

A long screening process

Last fall, with the escalation of the Syrian war that broke out in 2011, President Obama announced that the United States would take in 10,000 Syrian refugees in the coming year. That was a significant increase from the 1,500 already cleared to resettle here since the war, which has claimed some 40,000 lives.

But the Paris attacks in November triggered outrage from more than 30 mostly Republican governors -- including Florida’s Rick Scott -- saying they would refuse to accept Syrian refugees, citing terrorist concerns. 

Obama’s pledge got even further off track in June when an American-born Islamic extremist killed 49 people and injured dozens more in a mass shooting at an Orlando dance club.

But fears that an influx of refugees would flood into this country are unfounded, says Lourdes Mesias, statewide Director of Resettlement Services, Lutheran Services Florida Inc.
“It’s a long, long process,” Mesias says. “They have to be registered by the United Nations, interviewed extensively, go through a background check, fingerprinting, medical screen and cultural orientation. We have refugees who have to wait three years, even up to 10 years, to get the final approval to come here.”

There’s even some confusion among Americans as to what constitutes a refugee. Unlike immigrants, who come here on their own, a refugee is someone who has fled his or her own country because of a well-founded fear of persecution based on one of five categories: race, religion, nationality, social group membership or political opinion.

They come here legally, can become permanent legal residents within a year, and are eligible for citizenship in five years.

For whom much is given, much is expected
Florida accepts the most refugees of any state in the U.S., coming from nearly 60 countries. The number of Florida refugees resettling in the Tampa Bay area is second only to Miami-Dade.

Numbers have jumped in recent years, according to the Florida Department of Children and Families Refugee Services, which administers the federal funds for the incoming refugees. In 2011, Florida took in 27,204 refugees; last year, 48,816.

In the Tampa Bay area, DCF has contracts with four designated agencies to serve refugee populations with federal funds (each incoming refugee gets $1,125) and services upon arrival: Lutheran Services, Catholic Charities, Coptic Orthodox Charities and Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services. They, in turn, rely on area religious congregations, volunteer groups and individual supporters to also help with the sometimes difficult resettlement transition.

That’s how Radiant Hands got involved.

Initially, the nonprofit group, founded in 2005 with offices in Gainesville and Tampa, focused on women and children who needed assistance. But last year, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, approached President Magda Saleh and asked her to help Muslim and Arabic-speaking refugees.
This population now makes up about 80 percent of its clientele. Radiant Hands, which mainly depends on individual support and a small amount of grant money, currently serves about 150 families. About one third of them, like the Aljajaes, come from Syria; others come from Afghanistan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan and Iraq.
“We’re swamped. Yet I’m always amazed by how people living in this community step up and help, says Council on American-Islamic Relations President Magda Saleh. "I hear ‘What can I do?’ more often than not.” 
Saleh, an Egyptian Muslim raised in the U.S., didn’t even know about the extent of this population in the Tampa Bay area. However, she does empathize with their plight. Her husband, a Syrian, came here 33 years ago. He’s now an American citizen, but many of his family members have refugee status in Europe.

She says many of the arrivals here are sickly or have disabilities. Not speaking English is the biggest barrier, she says, along with lack of family support, transportation, finances and cultural adjustments.

Providing a hand up 

This summer, Radiant Hands has been busier than ever, helping with five to eight new families weekly. Volunteers step in with services not provided by the state contractors: their first hot meal, a cell phone prepaid for two months, a welcome basket with food from their native countries. Local supporters donate furniture and household items for their apartments.

“We’re swamped,” Saleh says. “Yet I’m always amazed by how people living in this community step up and help. I hear ‘What can I do?’ more often than not.”

Saleh says the main goal is to make sure their clients become self-sufficient, so they don’t get stuck in the system when their government stipend and assistance runs out.

“From what we’ve been told, none of our clients has ended up homeless,” she says. “That’s a big accomplishment, when you think of the odds they’re up against.”

Vicki Walker, director of missions and outreach at Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, had never considered a refugee ministry, either. But two separate incidents convinced her that God wanted it done.

The first was last November when she was on a “Journeys of Paul” pilgrimage through Turkey, Greece, Malta, Italy and Spain with Florida Bishop Kenneth Carter Jr. and other congregants. The group followed the apostle’s travels, covering biblical points of interest along the way.

In Turkey, while sitting in an outdoor café, a woman and her young son approached their table. She was holding her passport. The boy held up a handwritten sign. “We are from Syria. Can you help us? Thank you.”

Walker couldn’t forget that brief and haunting encounter. She took their picture and displayed it in her office when they returned home. And then came the second sign.

Marilyn Kaleel, a volunteer with Coptic Orthodox Charities stopped by the church to donate some chairs. In a passing conversation with Walker, she mentioned that she had been helping with resettling refugees for several years. She would welcome any assistance the church could offer.

“And that’s when I knew God was putting something right in front of me, and we needed to take action,” Walker says. “It’s important to see the divinity in everybody.”

Finding affordable housing, decent jobs

The church sponsored a forum in February, inviting some of the refugees referred by Kaleel. They told their stories of frustration, hardship and hope. Walker says 75 Hyde Park members promptly signed up as volunteers, offering to tutor children, drive family members to doctor appointments, assist with finding benefits and helping write a resume. 

The biggest challenge? Finding them affordable housing and jobs.
Walker says it’s the right thing to do. She also knows that in some circles, taking a stand like this isn’t popular.

“We helped create this global situation, so we need to help with the healing. These people are victims and they’ve suffered enough,” she says. “Other countries are doing their part; we need to do our share.”

Kaleel has long worked with Tampa Bay area Muslims in helping this population of refugees. She says the additional infusion of volunteers is a good way to build bridges between cultures and religion.

“The refugees are aware of some of the American sentiment against them,” she says. “But when they meet kind, giving people from this church, they see another side.”

Hyde Park UMC volunteer Sally Ordway says it’s a good thing to get out of your comfort zone.

“It’s easy to love your neighbor when your neighbor looks like you and talks like you,” she says. “When I first learned about this ministry, I realized I didn’t know any Muslims. I had heard the inflammatory rhetoric, but I didn’t really know anyone on a personal level.”

Now she’s able to form her own opinion. What she’s
“It’s easy to love your neighbor when your neighbor looks like you and talks like you,” says Sally Ordway, a volunteer helping relocate refugees.
found is that these refugees, forced to flee their homes for dire reasons, are working hard to build a new life in an unfamiliar country. Despite all the obstacles – language, culture, transportation, finances, to name a few – they are rising to the challenge, Ordway says.

“They are courteous, appreciative, generous and delightful,” she says. “I can’t fathom the trauma they’ve endured. And yet they persevere.”

A chance to thrive
It’s been a year of discovery and adjustment for the Aljajaes, who live near other Muslim refugees in a Section 8 housing complex in Temple Terrace.

Mohammed, a stay-at-home dad, is disabled. He walks with a pronounced limp caused by childhood polio that was never treated. His wife works five days a week in a Largo factory, paying a portion of her paycheck for van transportation with other workers. She leaves the house at 3 a.m., returning by dinner time.
On weekends, she works as a housekeeper.

Three of the four children are speaking English and doing well in school. The two older kids go to Liberty Middle School; the 9-year-old is at Hunters Green Elementary.

“They’ve made incredible progress,” says Linda Rounsaville, the Hyde Park UMC volunteer who helps the family. “Kids have a way of adjusting fast.”

They’re also grateful to be in an educational setting. They didn’t get to attend school in Syria. Neither of their parents ever learned to read or write.

As a retired middle-school counselor, Rounsaville say she has worked with needy populations most of her life. But the degree of challenges this family had endured before coming to America is a “whole new level.”

And those challenges continue.

“The amount of red tape they have to go through is so maddening and frustrating,” Rounsaville says. “Yet it doesn’t dampen their spirits. They remain appreciative for any little thing we can do.”

Mohammed Aljajae says he doesn’t know when, or if, he will ever see family members left behind in Syria or those in refugee camps. He chooses not to dwell on what was lost, but instead focuses on what they have found in their adopted country.

“My children are going to school,” he says with a broad smile. “I don’t have a dream for myself. I have a dream for my children. They have a chance at a good life, a safe life, a happy life.”

Read more articles by Michelle Bearden.

Michelle Bearden is a multimedia journalist and public speaker with extensive experience in print and broadcast media. She placed second in the nation behind a writer from Time magazine in the 2014 Religion Newswriters Association Supple Feature Religion Writer of the Year. Her “Keeping the Faith” segment on WFLA-TV was the country’s longest-running segment on faith and values among local affiliates. She’s a graduate of Central Michigan University, which inducted her in the school’s Journalism Hall of Fame in 2008 for her pioneer work in media convergence and investigative religion reporting. Michelle has won multiple awards for her work, including first-place honors in 2014 for column writing from the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors and beat reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. She is also a two-time winner of the Supple Religion Reporter of the Year from the national Religion Newswriters Association. Michelle’s home and yard in the Ballast Point neighborhood in south Tampa are legendary for big gatherings and dinner parties. She finally realized her dream of getting a horse, and now has two Rocky Mountain mares, which she trail rides and trains every chance she gets. And she is a die-hard Tampa Bay Rays fan.   
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