Refuge: One Syrian family’s long odyssey to Georgia

Of the 4.5 million Syrians who have fled their nation’s bloody civil war, fewer than 3,000 have made it to America. This is one family’s story.
Syrian refugees Clarkston Georgia
Seven-year-old Rima holds up a drawing of the Syrian flag that she made at school.

Photograph by Bryan Meltz

The uprising began in February of 2011 in Daraa, in the southwest of the country, with splashes of red graffiti on school walls and grain silos: “The people want to topple the regime!” By late spring it had spread 300 miles north to the city of Aleppo. Students crowded the streets, demanding the ouster of the auto­cratic Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, whose family had for decades kept a brutal stranglehold on the majority Sunni Muslim population. The police pushed back, first with tear gas and batons and later with bullets and shotgun shells. Bodies were left to fester in the sun.

Driving to work every day, Amin,* an employee at an Aleppo mattress factory, encountered roadblock after roadblock, stretching a 15-minute commute into a stressful, hour-long ordeal. “I consider myself to be a simple man,” Amin, a Sunni Muslim, told me recently through an interpreter. “But I could see that life was changing in ways small and big. And I knew it would change more. I thought to myself, Will this be over in one year? Two years? More? And in the meantime, what about my children?

Amin is sturdy and short, with sloping almond eyes and a low-slung center of gravity that seems to keep him stuck, like a fridge magnet, to the surface of the earth. Growing up middle class in Aleppo, his ambitions had extended only as far as the periphery of the city. He would go into factory work, settle down, and have as many children as God permitted.

In 2001, at 22, he’d been introduced to a young woman named Najma, who had fine features and a shy smile. He was smitten. “I knew that she was the only one I would ever love,” he says. “I never wanted to be apart from her.” A son, Hakim, arrived in 2002, followed by a daughter, Sana; then another son, Ibrahim; a second daughter, Rima; and finally, Kalil.

As the spring of 2011 gave way to the sweltering summer, Amin and Najma engaged in long and spirited discussions with their extended family, most of whom were determined to remain in Aleppo among their own people. The violence was still relatively small-scale and scattered, their families reasoned—a far cry from the devastation and death that would follow. “My five brothers said, ‘Even if we wanted to leave, how would we do it? For us, it’s impossible,’” Amin recalls. “But it was different for me; they knew that I had a way out of Aleppo, and they were supportive.”

In 2007 Amin had spent time in Egypt, working at a mattress factory in Cairo. There he’d struck up a few close friendships, including one with a Syrian-born supervisor. Using Facebook, Amin tracked down the man’s cell phone number and called him in Egypt. To his surprise, the man’s reply was immediate and enthusiastic: A spot had opened up on the floor. If Amin could get himself to Egypt, the job was his.

And my family?

They will have to wait, the supervisor said. That much paperwork—it won’t be easy. It will take time.

He arrived in Cairo the first week of September 2011.

Syrian refugees Clarkston Georgia
Four-year-old Kalil and his father inside their apartment in Clarkston.

Photograph by Bryan Meltz

As Amin had feared, outright war swept through Syria, pitting the government, entrenched in the capital of Damascus, against a loose conglomeration of rebel factions, some affiliated with foreign jihadi groups. In the break room at the Cairo mattress factory, where he operated a machine that coiled steel springs, Amin watched the fighting in Aleppo. It was only on the phone with Najma, hearing her frightened voice, that he could be certain that it was not his wife’s corpse that he’d glimpsed on the television set.

Without Amin, Najma and the children moved in with her parents, bunking up in the living room on the couches and on the floor. The fighting had effectively made them prisoners; they could make the short trips to school and to the store, but the threat of being shot kept them off the streets in the afternoons and nights. Najma did her best to distract the children, the oldest of whom was only 11, from the thump of far-off explosions and the sirens that startled them. “They wanted to be playing,” she tells me. “They’d say, ‘Okay, can we go now? How about now?’ And when I’d say, ‘No, not now,’ they’d want an answer. But I didn’t have one.”

If the conflict had earlier veered from street protests to gun battles, now it was entering a new and brutal phase. The Syrian navy was bombarding the coastal city of Latakia. Homs, midway between Damascus and Aleppo, was under siege. And in Aleppo, it was clear that no one, civilian or soldier, young or old, was safe. Amin and Najma felt that it was only through the grace of God that no one in their own family had yet been hurt.

A few weeks after he’d left for Cairo, Najma received a call from Amin. He’d emptied his savings and secured the requisite paperwork and plane fare. The family could join him in Egypt on temporary resident permits. Hanging up the phone, Najma wept. She and her children would escape the war, but they’d be leaving behind the only home they’d ever known, not to mention their extended family. Hakim, the oldest son, remembers what his mother told them as they packed: “We will probably never return.”

In Cairo the family took up residence in a three-room apartment near the factory. For a year and a half, the children did not go to school. A local branch of the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental organization headquartered in Geneva, provided Najma with a swipe card that could be used to purchase food. Even so, it was impossible to save any money; almost all of Amin’s weekly paycheck at the factory—the equivalent of $75—was used for housing and bills. The family had no long-term stability; they were forever one paycheck away from ruin.

And as Amin was keenly aware, their time in Egypt was not unlimited. If at any time the factory decided to downsize or if the Egyptian government launched a crackdown on foreign workers—already there were politicians agitating for it—Amin’s residency would be revoked. Outside the flat, the children found themselves the targets of harassment. “People would say, ‘Dirty Syrian rat, why are you taking our jobs?’” Ibrahim recalls.

Amin and Najma ruled out returning to what was left of their home city. Late 2012 had marked the beginning of the so-called Battle of Aleppo, a protracted siege that would see some of the first use of chemical warfare against civilians. Snipers took up positions in the city square, and government forces dropped barrel bombs—gorged with nails and ball bearings—onto apartment buildings. There was no economy to speak of, no clean water.

Amin’s brothers told him about dogs feasting on human carcasses a block away from where Amin and his family had once lived. You are lucky you escaped, they told him. In December 2011, Najma’s father died. She was unable to return to attend the funeral.

One afternoon Amin opened his Facebook account to find a message from his brother. There’d been a government rocket attack on his neighborhood. His brother had been pulled from the rubble, but his brother’s two young sons—Amin’s nephews—had been killed.

It was around this time that Amin and Najma made up their minds: They needed to escape the Middle East altogether, and the sooner the better.

Syrian refugees Clarkston Georgia
Waiting for Sana, 13, to arrive home on the school bus.

Photograph by Bryan Meltz

Since 2011 at least 4.5 million people—close to a quarter of the country’s population—have fled the civil war in Syria. More than 200,000 languish in overcrowded refugee camps in Jordan and Iraq. Others have attempted to flee by land or sea to Europe, often with tragic results. In 2015 a photo of the waterlogged corpse of a three-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, who had perished along with his five-year-old brother while attempting to sail with his family from Turkey to Greece, made the cover of newspapers around the globe. Around the same time, an Austrian autobahn worker opened the back doors of an apparently abandoned trailer to find 71 dead Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans inside. It eventually emerged that the traffickers hired to take the refugees further into Europe had failed to modulate the temperature in the trailer; the refugees had all suffocated.

As Paedia Mixon, the head of the nonprofit New American Pathways, told me recently when I met her in her office in Atlanta, the mad scramble to leave Syria has strained governments trying to accommodate refugees. “I’ve been working with refugees for a long time now, and I have never seen a situation like this,” she says. “It is a crisis in every sense of the word.”

Mixon, who is slight and red-haired, started her career at Catholic Charities in Atlanta before moving to the Carter Center, where she focused on peace program development. In 2005 she took a job at what is now New American Pathways, one of five resettlement agencies in Georgia and an affiliate of Episcopal Migration Ministries and the Church World Service, a network of Christian organizations. Operating largely on government grants and an annual budget of $5 million, the 60-odd employees took on 200 new cases last year with families coming from a range of countries: Bhutan, Somalia, Cuba, Iraq, Afghanistan.

For most of these families, New American Pathways represents the final leg of a long journey that started when they filed a request with the United Nations for refugee status. If the family has demonstrated a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion,” a security and medical screen is initiated.

Requirements vary depending on the country that will host the refugees. Families wishing to enter the United States, for instance, must pass a multipart evaluation carried out abroad by the State Department. They submit to biometric scans and give blood and DNA samples. Officials interview family members and known associates.

Once the family has received clearance, the files eventually get forwarded to groups like New American Pathways, which help with acclimation in the U.S. “We’ll get this bio in the mail, and it’ll be one page—everything you need to know about somebody in one page, if you can imagine that,” Mixon says. “Then we decide whether to accept or deny the case. We almost always accept. But it could be two months before we see the family. Or two years. Or it could not happen at all—a hitch in the screening process that prevents them from coming.”

The International Organization for Migration loans the family money for travel; stateside, groups like New American Pathways steer the family through a crash course in everything from Social Security and medical insurance enrollment to navigating mass transit. Employment specialists maintain relationships with local factories and warehouses, and they arrange English language instruction and classes on American culture.

“In those first six months, the goal is to get people self-sufficient,” Mixon says. “You want them to understand the community, to be able to navigate on their own. And to be able to work to provide for their families.”

Until last year New American Pathways had never helped resettle a family from Syria. That changed with the escalation of the civil war. “It was obvious just from watching the news that we needed to be prepared,” Mixon says. “We had the capacity; we had several Arabic speakers on staff, and we’d handled cases from Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan.”

In late 2014 the United States committed to increasing the number of Syrian refugees it took in from just 350 that year to 10,000 in 2015. (By comparison, at the same time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was pledging to accept 30,000 Syrian refugees; Germany has since taken in 250,000.)

Through State Department contacts, New American Pathways signaled it had the capacity and the language skills to handle some of that influx.

The first four Syrian families assigned to New American Pathways began arriving in Atlanta in the spring of last year. In stark contrast to the anti-immigrant furor that would arise in the wake of the fall terrorist attacks in Paris—attacks initially and erroneously linked to Syrian refugees traveling on fake passports—the refugees were greeted warmly. The Facebook page of New American Pathways overflowed with welcoming comments from well-wishers. Donations poured in.

“I know it’s corny to think of us as ‘The City Too Busy to Hate,’ but in some ways I think that there’s some truth to that,” Mixon says. “And there was real empathy—a shared understanding that all parents love their children and have the same hopes and dreams for them. If these parents are willing to put their children on an overcrowded raft and take off into the ocean, then what they’re leaving behind must be so completely horrible.”

Over the course of 2015, New American Pathways processed paperwork for 11 Syrian families. One of the last came in August and landed on the desk of Sarah McCormick, a case manager. Opening the file, she began reading about a laborer named Amin. He and his wife and their five children were seeking refuge in the U.S.

Syrian refugees Clarkston Georgia
Sana, 13, with her younger sister, Rima, in the bedroom they share

Photograph by Bryan Meltz

In the end, it had taken almost two years for Amin’s application to the United Nations for refugee status to be approved, during which time Aleppo had collapsed, family members died, and Amin forced himself not to surrender hope. He made countless trips to the IOM’s Cairo office, giving blood, giving hair samples, pressing his thumbs onto an ink pad, handing over the email addresses of friends and family back home.

As a matter of policy, the United Nations does its best to accommodate placement requests. If a refugee has relatives in Canada or Germany, it will try to make arrangements there. But more often, it comes down to capacity. Amin understood this. “I had no hopes about where we would go,” he tells me. “I just wanted it to be somewhere safe, you know?”

Amin was told in the early summer of 2015 that they’d been accepted by the U.S. He spoke no English, and what he knew of the country came only from television shows and movies. But he had heard of America’s reputation as a place where anything was possible, providing you were willing to work hard enough. “I said, ‘God must truly love me to give me a chance like this.’”

Long before dawn on a humid morning last August, Amin and Najma and their five children boarded a bus for the Cairo airport. Kalil, their youngest, was now three and had no idea of what was about to happen, except that it was some kind of adventure.

The family had packed only enough to fit into a few suitcases: clothes, toothbrushes, $300 in cash. Cairo to Italy to Miami to Atlanta. They touched down at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport at 11 at night. Twenty-two hours had elapsed since leaving Cairo.

At baggage claim, the family was met by a man named Shakir, a former refugee from Iraq and now a driver for New American Pathways. In Shakir’s van, they sat wide-eyed, hardly daring to speak. The highway was empty and dark, the air soft. Their fatigue seemed, for the moment, far away. “I worried if I fell asleep, it would turn out to be a dream,” Sana says.

A major part of New American Pathways’ resettlement work is to find lodging for refugee families; the organization will furnish the property with donated goods, and federal dollars will pay for several months in rent, but it’s the family’s name on the lease. For Amin’s family, the agency had settled on a condo complex in the city of Clarkston, the center of which has been called “the most diverse square mile in America.”

Long a home to Ethiopian and Somali refugees, the population has in recent years swelled with Iraqi and Afghani transplants fleeing civil war in their countries. According to the young mayor, Ted Terry, Clarkston currently has the highest refugee resettlement rates in the country. (In September, a month after Amin and his family arrived, Terry told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “Clarkston is ready to step up and do our part to welcome more Syrians, more Iraqis, more Afghanis to our city.”)

The family’s new apartment lay on the northeast edge of town at the back of a grid of identical structures, maybe 100 in all, with letters and numbers on the sides to distinguish one from the next. Their door, like all the doors, was beige. There was a small crescent of glass at eye level.

Najma remembers Kalil, the youngest, cocking his head to listen; other than the rustle of the trees and the murmur of traffic on a distant freeway, the quiet was complete. Then he nudged open the door and all the children cascaded through, dashing up the stairs, pointing excitedly at the television set, flopping dramatically backward onto the couches.

Amin and Najma were the last across the threshold. They took in the house in segments: downstairs, a small kitchen, a bathroom, a dining room, and a living room with walls scuffed by the last occupants. Upstairs, another bathroom and two bedrooms. There was halal food on the table, frozen chicken in the freezer, linens on the bed, towels in the bathrooms. “I thought,” Najma tells me, “that I had never seen anything so beautiful in my entire life.”

Syrian refugees Clarkston Georgia
Kalil, four, plays with his mother’s hijab while she prepares dinner.

Photograph by Bryan Meltz

When McCormick, the case manager, showed up at the condo the next day, she found Amin and Najma still in a state of shock. “Are you sure about all this?” the couple asked. “We don’t need to give it back?”

“Yes,” McCormick told them. “This is yours. Everything belongs to you. Except the fridge. You don’t get to keep that.”

Like a pint-sized military detachment, the children lined up in the living room, smiling bashfully at McCormick. They were practically shaking with excitement. McCormick encouraged Amin and Najma to take their time getting settled in. They should unpack, walk around the neighborhood. Get some rest. Amin shook his head. He was ready to work. When could he start?

McCormick had expected this. “Obviously not every refugee family is the same—their experiences vary, their cultures vary,” she tells me. “But what they share is this view of America as a place where no one is going to help you if you don’t help yourself. They take that responsibility very seriously.” She assured Amin that they were looking into employment opportunities.

The next week was a frenzied blur. The members of the family were shuttled from office to office to apply for Social Security numbers and Medicaid cards. As refugees, the State Department had granted them legal residency, meaning Amin could work as soon as he received his Social Security number and both he and Najma could hold driver’s licenses. After five years they could all apply for full American citizenship, and with it the right to vote.

In September the four oldest children were enrolled in area schools. They were expected to pick up English quickly, though there were Arabic speakers on staff at the Clarkston schools to help them learn. Najma, too, took classes at New American Pathways and listened to American TV as often as she could. For Amin, it was different; he was the primary breadwinner for the family, and if he had to choose between ESL classes and a paycheck, he’d choose the paycheck.

Luckily an employment specialist had produced a lead; a poultry processing plant in Pendergrass needed more floor workers. The factory had previously hired other New American Pathways families. English was not required. Amin started in mid-October. His shift ran from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., with a one-hour break. His job was to stand in one of the refrigeration units and use a machine to wrap raw chicken in plastic. He left home at 3 p.m. and returned at 3 a.m., crawled into bed, and woke up at 11 to eat breakfast. Pay was about $350 a week after taxes.

In Egypt or Syria, that income level would have placed Amin in the middle class. But here it left him barely solvent, so he relied on food stamps to feed his family. There was also the matter of transportation. Because Amin did not have a car, he carpooled with a coworker, a Somali man. For this privilege, the Somali charged Amin $40 a week.

Amin and his family had not had much time to attend the mosque in Clarkston. But they did meet several members of the Syrian American community in metro Atlanta, one of whom, hearing of Amin’s situation at the chicken plant, gave him a used Dodge Caravan. “I thought, ‘This is an opportunity,’” Amin says. Through New American Pathways, he found an opening at a warehouse a little closer to Clarkston, where he would not be required to work in a refrigeration unit; the cold, he recalls, had aggravated an old knee injury. Instead he would prepare produce for shipping. The pay was $10 less a week, but he could make up for that by charging his coworkers for a ride to work, as the Somali had charged him.

Syrian refugees Clarkston Georgia
Rima, seven, watches a video on her parents’ phone.

Photograph by Bryan Meltz

On November 13, terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State killed 130 people in Paris. In the U.S., where Islamophobia was already running high, news of the attacks was heralded by conservatives as proof of the need to keep out migrants from Muslim countries. (In fact, all the known attackers were citizens of Europe, though at least one likely spent time training in Syria.)

In Georgia, Governor Nathan Deal issued an executive order intended to stop the resettlement of Syrian refugees. “Until the federal government and Congress conducts a thorough review of current screening procedures and background checks, we will take every measure available to us at the state level to ensure the safety of Georgians,” Deal said in a statement.

At New American Pathways, the proposed ban was alarming. “Look, the U.S. refugee program is incredibly cautious,” Mixon tells me. “In the 35-year history of the program, no refugee has ever committed an act of domestic terrorism. It is as safe as it could possibly be. And the Syrians are the most vetted group of immigrants entering the county; the process takes two years. We know very well how long that process takes, incidentally, because the family members waiting abroad are calling us every day. I think for a lot of people in America, there was suddenly this idea that, If we don’t bring refugees here, that’ll make us safe. But ignoring the suffering of four-plus million people is not going to make us safe; it’s just going to put us at far greater risk.”

Mixon sought to assure Muslim clients that they were still welcome here. In late December, Sam Olens, Georgia’s attorney general, issued a formal opinion calling into question the legality of barring “refugees from particular countries from participation in the refugee resettlement program.” Deal subsequently rescinded the ban.

Still, though Mixon says none of the Syrian refugees she knows have experienced direct prejudice, the fear represented by Deal’s proposed ban lingers. When I asked McCormick what she might say, hypothetically, if cornered by someone who supported barring Syrian refugees from entering Georgia, she laughed. “Oh, that’s not a hypothetical,” she said. “I’ve gotten that in person. I’ve seen it online. I respond by saying, ‘I know these refugees personally, and they are not terrorists. They are victims. They are good people escaping a terrible situation. And they just want to be able to contribute. All you have to do is be there for the first time they see their new home, and see that calm and relief settle over their faces. Even without being able to speak Arabic, you understand it because it’s visible.’”

Syrian refugees Clarkston Georgia
Amin, Najma, and their children walk through a supermarket in Clarkston, Georgia. Amin’s only day off of work is Sunday, allowing the family time to run errands.

Photograph by Bryan Meltz

On a bright afternoon this winter, I went with Amin and Najma and their children to a pizzeria in Clarkston. Wedging his new minivan into a corner spot, Amin led his family past a store selling international calling cards and a boutique with an array of colorful head scarves in the window. He nodded politely to the group of Somali men smoking at the curb. At the door, Amin made a point of holding open the door of the pizzeria and saying “please,” in English. I thanked him. “You are welcome,” he said.

Amin and Najma are now 36 and 33, respectively, but Amin in particular looks much older; his scalp and cheeks are covered with salt-and-pepper scruff, and the worry lines on his forehead have deepened into geoform trenches. This may be a product of the long hours he works. But I suspect it’s also a manifestation of the pressure that comes from protecting his children from the effects of the war that has consumed their homeland; he and Najma absorb all that anger and pain so their children don’t have to.

At the restaurant we settled into two booths, Amin and Najma and Kalil at one and the four oldest kids at the other. The pizzeria was halal—literally “permissible” in Arabic—meaning that there was no alcohol available, no pork on the menu, and that all meat had been prepared under the authority of a certified Muslim inspector. In the background an Al Jazeera anchor was detailing a recent government assault on Aleppo: Hundreds were dead. The children kept their attention on their plates.

I gestured at the TV screen. Did they miss Syria?

“I remember having a picnic with my uncles and my nephews,” Sana says. “That is a good memory. And I miss my family.”

Ibrahim chimed in. “I remember eating with my family after Eid,” the holiday that commemorates the end of the Ramadan fasts.

Anything else? In unison, the children shook their heads. They may have missed their family in Syria, but they did not miss Syria itself—certainly not what it has become. Their focus was on America, which they spoke of with a booster’s enthusiasm: All the people were friendly. All the trees were green. “Everything is beautiful,” Sana explained. They had big plans, the four of them. Ibrahim wanted to be a police officer. Rima, an engineer, because she liked to draw. Sana, a pediatrician. And Hakim, a radiologist.

After the children had finished eating, we drove across town to a playground. As soon as the van stopped, the children made a beeline for the swings. The weather was mild, the skies clear. Kalil climbed into the harness, and Sana, standing behind him, pushed him high into the air.

Nearby Amin and Najma listened to Kalil squeal with delight. Najma had her hand on her belly; she’s pregnant again, due in June.

The last time I saw the family, at their condo in Clarkston, Kalil jumped into my lap and held up a black-and-white photograph. It was an ultrasound obtained just a few days before. “Girl,” Kalil said in English.

Born on U.S. soil, the baby will be an American from birth, the first American citizen in the family. Najma was still deciding on a name, but she told me she was leaning toward Noor. In Arabic, it means “light.”

*Fearful that his extended family in Syria might be targeted by the government, Amin asked that he and his family be identified by pseudonyms. In addition, his face and his wife’s face have been obscured.

This article originally appeared in our April 2016 issue.