Three Refugees, Three Journeys to California

Syrian refugee Mohammad Aref Rawoas, Vietnamese refugee Viet Thanh Nguyen and Holocaust survivor Ben Stern (L-R). (Laura Klivans and Sasha Khokha/KQED)

The California Report Magazine recently won an award from the Society of Professional Journalists for a show highlighting the stories of three Californians who have journeyed to the U.S. as refugees at different points in history. It originally aired in February 2017 after President Donald Trump announced his initial travel ban and plans to stop admission of certain refugees. We re-aired the show, with updates, in December.  Listen to the full show:

One man we profiled fled the Syrian civil war with his family, and recently settled in East Oakland. Another fled Vietnam in the wake of the Vietnam War in 1975, and settled in Los Angeles. A third fled the Holocaust in 1945, and settled in Berkeley after surviving nine Nazi concentration camps.

Mohammad Aref Rawoas

Mohammad Aref Rawoas shows off his garden in East Oakland. He stands among young figs, lemons, grapes, peas, and loquats. The small side yard pales in comparison to the nearly ten-acre farm the family had in Syria.
Mohammad Aref Rawoas shows off his garden in East Oakland. He stands among young figs, lemons, grapes, peas and loquats. The small side yard pales in comparison to the nearly 10-acre farm the family had in Syria. (Laura Klivans/KQED)

Name: Mohammad Aref Rawoas

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Home Country: Syria

California Home: Oakland

Year immigrated: 2015

Why he fled: Syrian civil war

What he had to show to get in: fingerprints, identification cards, photos, iris scans, medical exams, five background checks, dozens of interviews

What he thinks of President Trump's efforts to limit refugees: "We think the world is closed now to refugees because every country has reached its capacity or is closed. Where are people supposed to go? They will either stay inside [Syria] and die in the war, or they will try to get out and flee. If they don't die inside, they'll die at sea. We were joyful that doors opened for us, but now, for many people, life has become dark."

Update, December 2017: The family has started a Bay Area catering business called Old Damascus Fare, making mostly Syrian dishes. "We are hoping that the catering business will help us to build a good life in this country," says his daughter Batool. "We want to move past the struggles that come along with being a refugee, and hope to have an easier life."

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen signs copies of his new collection of short stories, "The Refugees." Nguyen came to the United States with his family as a refugee from Vietnam after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen signs copies of his new collection of short stories, "The Refugees." Nguyen came to the United States with his family as a refugee from Vietnam after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

Name: Viet Thanh Nguyen

Home Country: Vietnam

California Home: Los Angeles

Year Immigrated: 1975

Why he fled: Communist victory in the Vietnam War

What he had to show to get in: "Obviously we didn't have the kinds of documents we would have needed because we were war refugees. People who left in a more organized fashion before the final day of the invasion did have to present passports and visas. But people who were just literally jumping on boats to get out, we didn't have those kinds of documents."

What he thinks of President Trump's efforts to restrict refugees: "I wouldn't want to be in that situation. It's happening to people that their lives have suddenly been utterly disrupted. The Trump administration has said this is simply a temporary disruption, but obviously if it's your life and you've been cut off from your home, your family, your children, your spouse, it's devastating."

Update, December 2017:  Since we first braodcast this interview,  Viet Nguyen was awarded a  Macarthur "Genius" award for his fiction and cultural criticism. 

Ben Stern

Ben Stern holds up a copy of a newspaper clipping show him and his wife after they came to the United States as Jewish refugees after World War II. Stern survived two ghettos, nine concentration camps and two death marches.
Ben Stern holds up a copy of a newspaper clipping show him and his wife after they came to the United States as Jewish refugees after World War II. Stern survived two ghettos, nine concentration camps and two death marches. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

Name: Ben Stern

Home Country: Poland

California Home: Berkeley

Year Immigrated: 1945

Why he fled: Holocaust

What he had to show to get in: His tattoo from a Nazi concentration camp

What he thinks of President Trump's executive orders: "We as American people must say not now, not here. The Constitution offers the freedom of speech and religion. We need to help the people when they reach for a handout."

Update, December 2017: In August, Ben Stern led an anti-racism march in downtown Berkeley.  He'll be speaking at a screening of "Near Normal Man," a documentary about his life,  on January 25 in Berkeley.

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