Without Funds, a Scramble to Assist Syrian Refugee Migration to Fresno
Volunteer Layla Darwish worries about the effects of war on Syrian refugee children, some of whom have been wounded, burned or witnessed violence. (Courtesy Layla Darwish)
When Kathleen Chavoor-Bergen learned there were Syrians in Fresno, she immediately volunteered to help out. She’s Armenian-American, so she understands something about war and displacement. Her own grandparents survived the Armenian genocide by fleeing to Aleppo, Syria.
“If it wasn’t for Aleppo, I wouldn’t be here today,” says Chavoor-Bergen.
She’s translated that gratitude into befriending several Syrian refugee families in Fresno. “It’s really the least I can do. They [Syrians in Aleppo] opened their arms to my family, and now I’m opening my arms to theirs."
Chavoor-Bergen is also educating the community. She educates public school counselors about the recent migration of Syrian refugees to Fresno. She wants the counselors to understand that more than half of displaced Syrians are children, most under the age of 12. Many of them are now enrolled in Fresno schools -- some have been wounded, burned or have witnessed violence.
“They’ve endured the destruction of their homes and communities, survived forced displacement. Part of the complexity of their trauma is that it went from their home maybe in Aleppo to the [refugee] camps and the extreme vetting process,” Chavoor-Bergen says.
And on to resettlement areas like San Diego, Sacramento and Turlock. Now, some of those families are deciding on their own to move to Fresno. Housing is cheaper here, and there’s a large and welcoming Arab-American community.
But Fresno is not a resettlement city -- meaning it receives no federal funding to help refugees start over -- so volunteers and advocacy groups are scrambling to keep up.
Without Federal Funds, a Scramble to Assist Syrian Refugee Migration to Fresno
On her own, Darwish started a tutoring program where volunteers help kids with homework.
She looks up from the sidewalk and greets a Syrian woman yelling down to her from her second-floor apartment. Darwish just saw her yesterday, but the woman clearly misses her.
"She said, 'I haven’t seen you in a long time,' ” says Darwish, translating. “So that’s quite common. A lot of them are kind of territorial. They want you to spend more time with them."
In this 16-unit apartment complex, there are 41 children, and on any given day, you can hear them laughing and yelling and chasing each other in the courtyard.
Ray Harris, 22, is a member of the only family here that’s not Syrian. He says he likes his neighbors.
“They show a lot of love, man. They bring you food and everything,” he says. He adds that he uses Google translate to communicate with them.
Next door to Harris, Mohammed Bachan tells Darwish that life is better for refugees here in America. He has five kids, and he now works as a mechanic -- in Syria he had a car dealership.
When he and his family first moved to Fresno, they were scared.
“Because they didn’t know where to start,' Darwish says. "In the beginning there was a local mosque that helped them just network with people. And then once FIRM came in, we started taking them to the DMV to get their permits, their driving lessons."
A few decades ago, this neighborhood was teeming with Hmong refugees. The rents are still cheap, about $450 for a two-bedroom unit. But it isn’t always safe.
“There have been a number of attacks from the neighborhood gangs, anywhere from throwing stones to knives. The police have been called lately,” she says. “One of my colleagues was patrolling the neighborhood until 12 at night. They just want to live here in peace.”
FIRM Executive Director Zack Darrah says he’s partnering with local Islamic cultural centers, churches and advocacy groups to help Syrians find better housing, cars and jobs. About 200 Syrians have migrated to Fresno, most in the past year, and Darrah expects more.
“I’ve gotten calls from Indiana, from Florida, from Texas, San Diego and San Jose,” he says.
Fresno is used to having refugees: Hmong and other groups make up about 10 percent of the city’s population. But helping refugees is tricky without resettlement funds, says Darrah.
“Working with Syrians has taken just a huge amount of our capacity. The dollars are very challenging, and it’s also because it’s a polarizing issue. I’ve spoken at places that blatantly do not agree with the work we’re doing,” he says. “I’ve spoken to churches that do not agree with what we’re doing as a Christian organization. [[They say]] ‘why are we working with Muslims and why are we serving these other folks and why are they even here’?”
And these families have already been through so much trauma, he says. They are starting from scratch, finding jobs, learning English, enrolling their kids in schools.
And on top of that, some of them have experienced extreme prejudice.
"We want to protect them, make them feel safe,” says Darrah. “But we have to be clear with families that not everyone does. These are unfortunate conversations to have with refugees who have just left a horrendous situation. Many have lost family and suffered terribly, and they come here to us and we have to talk with them about taking safety precautions!"
Fortunately, FIRM did get a county grant to hire three part-time employees to interpret for and assist Syrian refugees. Wasan Abu-Baker is one of those interpreters. But she was helping Syrians long before she was hired by FIRM, taking them to medical appointments, the mosque and the grocery store.
She, too, left a war-torn place to come to the United States from Palestine after marrying an American citizen. And now, she not only works for FIRM but she’s also doing a community engagement project as a fellow for the Tamejavi Cultural Organizing Fellowship Program at the Pan Valley Institute. The goal is to learn about her Muslim community in Fresno and empower the community through leadership, cultural organizing and art.
She says the project has opened her eyes to the many gifts Syrian refugees and asylum seekers have to offer. “I found out we have a lot of hidden artists in our community,” she says. “But we need to share that with other communities so they know what we have as Muslims here.”
Recently, as part of her project, she brought a Syrian interior designer who does elaborate paintings on ceramics to a crafts store to pick out some paints and paintbrushes. The artist was surprised by the number of choices available.
“In our country, only once choice,” she tells Abu-Baker. “I know!” Abu-Baker says. “This is what I learn. This country, a lot of choices.”
Choices that Abu-Baker hopes will make the lives of Syrian refugees easier in Fresno.