Syrian Refugee Family Adapts to Life in Oakland

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Rawaa Kasedah serves breakfast to her son, Mohamad, 10, as husband Mohammad Rawoas, awaits his turn. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

At her apartment in East Oakland, Rawaa Kasedah, 37, fries almonds in a deep pan.  She adds them to the chickpea, pita bread and yogurt dish she is preparing.

"It's called fatteh hummus," she says in Arabic. Her husband, Mohammad Rawoas, and their four children fill their plates with boiled eggs, olives and baba ghanoush already on the table. The meal is the "perfect Syrian breakfast," they say.

The six members of the Rawoas family arrived in the U.S. nine months ago as refugees. They are among the roughly 260  Syrian refugees who have been resettled in California since March 2011, when Syria's civil war began.

But the Paris attacks last month sparked a controversy in the United States over whether to admit more Syrian refugees, and the resettlement program has come under fire from mostly Republican lawmakers and elected officials. In unconfirmed reports, one of the gunmen in Paris was alleged to have entered Europe by posing as a refugee with a Syrian passport, which authorities now recognize as fake, according to the Washington Post.


Syria's civil war has forced over 4.3 million people to register as refugees in asylum countries such as Egypt and Jordan, according to the United Nations The U.S. has admitted just 2,310 since the conflict began, significantly fewer than countries like Germany and Canada.

In the suburb of Damascus where the Rawoas family lived, Mohammed Rawoas owned and managed a clothing factory. He had to lay off all 50 employees when the area turned into a war zone. Three of Rawaa Kasedah's cousins were arrested and disappeared. Tanks rolled on the streets and sniper fire flew into the Rawoas home. Many of their neighbors were killed during bombings.

"We would see dead bodies on the streets," Rawoas, 47, says in Arabic. "Sometimes gunfire would start on the street and I'd be trapped in my car. I would just say my prayers and prepare to die."

The family fled to Jordan. First it was a temporary haven but, as they realized the conflict was not subsiding, they applied to the U.N. for refugee status. Obtaining it took more than a year.

The family underwent background checks by agencies like Homeland Security and the FBI. There were fingerprints, iris scans and multiple interviews of each parent and child by U.N. and American officials.

(For a White House infographic of the screening process for refugee entry into the U.S. click here.)

Mohammed Rawoas, 10, plays in his family's Oakland apartment with a cat he adopted and called Simbad.
Mohamad Rawoas, 10, plays in his family's Oakland apartment with Simbad, a cat he recently adopted. Mohamad attends fourth grade at a public school. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

The U.S. government screens Syrian refugees more thoroughly than almost anyone else applying to come into this country, and that process that can take years. That's one reason that fears of Syrian refugees are misplaced, says Kate Jastram, a UC Berkeley law professor who has worked on refugee issues for over 25 years.

"It’s not very likely that the enterprising terrorist is going to want to take that route to get to the U.S.," says Jastram.

Still, governors of 31 states said in November that they object to admitting Syrian refugees. Officials in Texas sued the federal government to keep new refugee families out of the state.

It's a much less welcoming environment than just a few months ago, when images of a drowned 3-year-old boy lying on a Turkish beach  galvanized public attention to the plight of Syrians fleeing the war, says Karen Ferguson, executive director of the International Rescue Committee of Northern California.

"What's been interesting is watching the country really swing as a pendulum," says Ferguson. "There was such incredible compassion and swelling up of people's understanding of the plight of Syrian refugees. And then, unfortunately, the natural reaction of panic and fear that came with the Paris attacks."

In the aftermath of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, fears of terrorism have increased in the U.S.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations says that anti-Muslim hate crimes have spiked nationwide in recent weeks. The organization attributes these incidents in part to rhetoric by presidential candidate Donald Trump, who called for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. "until our country's representatives can figure out what's going on."

As part of their cultural orientation classes, Ferguson's resettlement agency is now telling Syrian and Muslim refugees about how to handle potential aggression here in America.

"So if they experience something, to know that they don't have to respond and that they can bring that to the attention of their community members or the police," says Ferguson.

Ghaidaa Mousabacha visits with the Rawoas. Mousabacha volunteers to help Syrian refugee families in the East Bay with translations and other support.
Ghaidaa Mousabacha, from San Jose, visits with the Rawoas family. Mousabacha volunteers to help the Rawoas family and another Syrian refugee family in Oakland with translations and other support. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

Syrian-American Ghaidaa Mousabacha, a middle school teacher from San Jose, has been helping refugee families like the Rawoases navigate life in their new home. Mousabacha admits that some members of her community are a little worried about extra scrutiny by airport security, or unfriendly looks from strangers. But Mousabacha says she has actually felt a lot of support recently from co-workers and even strangers.

"I went to a church yesterday and I attended a choir celebration for Christmas,"  she says. "And people who knew that I was Syrian, they all hugged me ... and I felt that they cared."

Members of the Rawoas family say they haven't felt any discrimination either. Mostly they are just trying to adapt to a whole new language and culture. Mohammad Rawoas has found work as a delivery driver. Money is tight, but the family is finding a sense of community through the local mosque and through other Syrian immigrants.

The three younger kids, Batool, Bayan and Mohamad, are in school, and Hanan, the oldest, is studying English and working to continue her college education to become a pharmacist.

"On Tuesday and Thursday I take a health care program and I prepare for the pharmacy technician examination board," Hanan says in English.

Her father, Mohammad Rawoas, believes Americans who still mistrust Syrians should get to know his family so they can change their minds. Rawoas says the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott -- who sued to bar Syrian refugees -- would be welcome to come to his home for a Syrian brunch.

"We will host him for the whole day, from morning to night," says Rawoas with a smile.

He and his wife hope their relatives still living in war-torn Syria might eventually gain refugee status here as well.