Uprooted by War, Syrian Family Grows New Community in California

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)

Mohammad Aref Rawoas shows off his family’s garden in East Oakland. He ignores the trucks that roll by just over his chain-link fence and points out a lemon tree, an apricot tree and a fig tree.

A grapevine snakes along the fence and there are also peas.

There’s a lot growing in a compact area that fits roughly two cars. This urban oasis is nothing compared to the 10-acre farm the family had in Syria, where they grew over 100 fruit trees, Rawoas says.

Rawoas, his wife Rawaa Kasedah and their four children came to the U.S. as refugees from Syria almost two years ago.

A Comfortable Life, Disrupted

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In Syria, Rawoas owned and managed a clothing factory and the family had a comfortable life they never before considered leaving.

But as the fighting from the civil war in Syria got closer, it became too dangerous for the kids to go to school. Kasedah says the violence severely stressed the children, who now range in age from 11 to 22.

"All they talked about was war: 'I saw someone's leg cut off and I saw a body part here and there,' " she says.

When the fighting reached Rawoas' factory, he shut it down. All 50 of his employees lost their jobs.

Kasedah says they tolerated the war for nearly a year, but then the fighting came too close to their home in a Damascus suburb. At one point, two tanks faced off in front of the Rawoas family house. The building shook every time one fired.

"The hardest day was the day I left my home," Kasedah says. "That day, we didn't know who was bombing or dropping rockets. All of the bombing was right over my house. The electricity went out, and there was no place safe since my whole house is windows. I was scared. We all slept in a small hallway between the rooms."

The family of six spent the last night in their home on a foam mattress in the dark, crying, she says.

The next morning, they fled their home of eight years. Kasedah wept.

"My husband said, 'You sound like you've lost a child the way you're crying,' " she recalls.

In Jordan, in Limbo

After crossing the border to Jordan, the family was able to register as refugees with the United Nations. Luckily, they rented a house in Jordan, rather than living in the challenging circumstances of a refugee camp. Kasedah felt this was critical to the safety of her children, especially her teenage daughters.

Still, the mother describes this period of waiting as one of the hardest times the family faced. As refugees, it was hard to find work. Every time the kids went back to school, it was unclear if they’d finish the term. Rawoas and Kasedah worried that any misstep could send them all back to Syria.

A year after crossing the border, though, the family learned they’d be resettled.

"They just told us you are eligible to immigrate," Kasedah remembers. "We did the first interview, we said, where will we go? They said, 'We still don't know.' We were happy, because we just wanted a way out."

Their way out was to the United States.

The family's waiting period was punctuated by daylong interviews with a variety of government officials every two-three months. Kasedah says the family even developed a routine around the interviews, since they were so frequent.

"I knew that if I had an interview that day, I was leaving at eight. I would not be home until the evening. So I would pack sandwiches for the kids," she says.

The family was interviewed together and separately. Sometimes Rawoas, the father, would be interviewed for four hours.

There were fingerprints, photos, iris scans and medical exams. The family describes an intensive screening process, involving eight federal U.S. agencies, six security databases and five separate background checks.

At the end of one interview day, an official told the family they had only a small chance of being accepted.

But three years after leaving Syria, the family finally boarded a plane to the U.S.

A New Home in America

In the beginning, the transition to the U.S. was incredibly difficult. Kasedah wasn't used to feeling so helpless.

"When I first came, for the first five months I cried every day because I was so used to doing everything for my kids myself," she says. Kasedah didn't speak English and didn't know where to go for simple resources.

Through the help of friends, their community and resettlement agencies, however, the family found their footing.

Rawaa Kasedah hopes to teach Syrian cooking classes and eventually open a Syrian restaurant that will feature dishes like mujaddara, shown here. It's a classic meal that consists of lentils, bulgur, and fried onions. Kasedah accompanies the dish with baba ganoush, salad, yogurt, and homemade pickles.
Rawaa Kasedah hopes to teach Syrian cooking classes and eventually open a Syrian restaurant that will feature dishes like mujaddara, shown here. It's a classic meal that consists of lentils, bulgur and fried onions. Kasedah accompanies the dish with baba ganoush, salad, yogurt and homemade pickles. (Laura Klivans/KQED)

Now, after two years in Oakland, Kasedah and Rawoas are enrolled in English classes. Rawoas works as a bus driver for kids with disabilities, and for the ride-hailing company Uber. Kasedah hopes to launch Syrian cooking classes and eventually open a Syrian restaurant. The older children, both daughters go to college, one working as a dental assistant and the other as a barista. One volunteers with newly arrived refugees. The two younger children study and play sports.

A Desire to Give Back

Rawoas feels gratitude for his new home.

"We've come to America, and we've lived in America, and eaten its food and seen its people," he says. "We don't consider ourselves guests or refugees. I feel [America's] my country."

Rawoas feels this so strongly that he’d fight for the United States. When his eldest daughter told him that she saw recruiters for the U.S. military at her college campus, Rawoas told her he wanted to join. At the time, he didn't yet have his green card, which disqualified him from joining. When he got a green card, he went back to the recruiter. This time, he was turned down for age. He's almost 50 years old.

He's still thinking about other ways to serve.

"It would make me really happy to work for the government or join the police because I really feel like I want to serve this country since we've gotten so much," he says.

The Rawoas family came here when President Obama was in office, but now that President Trump is restricting refugees from coming in, they feel just a little less welcome. And they empathize with others in the position in which they once were.

"Where are people supposed to go?" Rawoas asks. "They will either stay inside [Syria] and die, 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," he says. "But now, for many people, life has become dark."

One of those people is Kasedah's brother. He's been approved to come to the United States and the Rawoases are his sponsors.

But he does not yet have a plane ticket, given the uncertainty surrounding the executive order.

"His suitcases in Jordan are zipped up. He's just waiting for the flight reservation," Kasedah says.

For now, the family will just have to wait and hope.

Lubna Takruri contributed translation services to this story.

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