Syrian Kurdish Refugees Start Over In Atlanta

By Benjamin Kweskin:

(Special thanks to Mazlom Hassan for translating and to Ahmet Baran for facilitating)

Family: Husband: Ali Abdo, 42; Wife: Aras, 31; Son: John Abdo, 12; Daughter: Jwana Abdo, 7

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your family background.

Ali: We are originally from Afrin but lived in Aleppo (Syria’s second city) and moved there when we were children. We grew up with nothing. Though we went to school, no one cared about us; we we did not even have bicycles like my children now have. The Syrian government [led by former dictator Hafez al-Assad] did not care about us. They did not like us or care about us because we are Kurds. The government did not invest in Kurdish areas as a policy: there was no industry, no new schools—nothing. We are very proud to be Kurdish: we named our children after a famous Kurdish folk song.

To people who may not understand or appreciate your circumstances, please share with a little about what it is like to live in Syria over the past few years leading up to the civil war in 2011.

Ali: When we first had our kids, the situation was better: my wife and I were both working and we had a small sewing shop. I learned this skill when I left school and learned how to become a tailor.

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Jwana and John

When and how did you decide it was time to leave?

Ali: My job was doing well but when the situation in Syria first started (2011) it was severely affected. When the Free Syrian Army came to Aleppo I sold all of my machines and took what I could and went to Turkey to try to get work. When we finally left Syria we did not think about returning because we did not know which direction the bombs would be coming from. My brothers and everyone else came to Turkey except my parents, who remain in Kafr Rum, a village near Afrin.

I walked through the border and paid a lot of money to get smuggled through. If we went legally, we would have been automatically sent to a camp and we did not want to go there—the camps are horrible. We went to Istanbul because we thought there would be a lot of work there. We took a bus from Antakya to Istanbul which was a 15 hour drive. When we reached Istanbul—where we ended up living for four years—we eventually found work, but the company would not pay us: during one particularly bad time, we worked for them for three months without being paid.

Aras: Half of my family has left Syria for Lebanon, Sweden, and England and half are still in Afrin and other parts of Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan). Thank God, one of my brother’s and his family are here in the US and they live in the same apartment complex as us now.

When Ali went to Turkey, my children and I left Syria on our own: we went to the border walked more than two hours. We took that long, difficult bus ride to Istanbul from Antakya.  We wanted to rent an apartment but were homeless and in the streets for a while because we weren’t initially able to rent it even though we had money. Eventually, one of our relatives helped us but the apartment did not even have electricity and water!

Our Turkish landlord did not want to rent to any Syrians but finally accepted. After three months Ali couldn’t earn enough by himself and so the landlord wanted to evict us. At that time my daughter, Jwana was three years old. But I had to work and so I had no choice but to leave the children at home alone. Every day we worked from 8:00am-7:00pm.

Even then, our employer did not pay us. We made enough money in reality, but we would never get paid in full; they did not treat us well simply because we were refugees. Often, they would even make us work for them for two hours “free.” Once I told him about my two young children at home alone but my boss did not care. Every day Jwana cried when we left the apartment because we would leave her alone with her brother, who was only eight at the time.

The landlord made us pay 500 Lira even though it was listed as 300. The landlord threatened us and told us not to say anything to the police. They made us clean five floors instead of just ours and would hit people (other refugees) sometimes. Even the Turkish neighbors told the landlords to evict us because we were Syrian and Kurds.

After two years of living in Istanbul, there was an option for our children to go to school but it was an “Arab school” operated by people closely linked to the Free Syrian Army and the tuition was $200 a year, which we could not afford anyway.

One of my brothers and Ali went to the United Nations in Istanbul to apply for refugee status and they opened a file for us then. We did not receive any help from the Turkish government but the Kurds in Turkey assisted us a great deal: they brought us blankets, beds, pillows, food, and also provided us with us information for contacting local organizations.

Ali: The Turks talk a lot about Islam, but they do not know much about its values. Yes, they pray and go to mosque, but when they leave the mosque they forget about what they have just heard. We [my family] are Muslims, but we don’t make distinction between religions and ethnicities. We are Kurds first.

How did you find yourself in Atlanta?

Aras: My brother who applied with Ali at the UN only has one hand so the UN helped his family and ours more quickly. During that waiting period in Turkey my brother found a Kurdish factory owner who even told him to just come to the factory but did not have to worry about working due to his condition. My brother refused and said he will come every day and work.

All together it took one year from the beginning of the application for the UN to call us and they told us us we were going to the US. Shocked, we said, “America?!” We were very surprised and we absolutely wanted to come here.

Ali: If Israel invited us, we’d go there, too. We just wanted to leave Turkey.

Aras: We have been in Atlanta now for eleven months. On our first day, after traveling on the plane (which was our first time!) we did not realize how far America was from Turkey. We arrived first in Miami and thanked God that we were in America. When we came to Atlanta it was very exciting but we were still so nervous. While we were waiting in the airport we thought we would be taken to a refugee camp—we did not know anything. New American Pathways is the refugee resettlement agency that has helped us since coming here.

They helped us with everything when we settled in Clarkston. We were nervous to even enter our apartment because we thought it would be like the one in Istanbul with nothing inside or without running water and electricity. We did not know how our neighbors would be, either. But when we entered the apartment, we immediately saw that there was furniture, beds, and everything else that we needed. For six months they helped us pay rent and Ali started working at a factory in Stone Mountain. Now, all of us are learning English at Indian Creek Elementary and we are thankful that our children began school immediately.

John: I am in the fourth grade (despite being twelve years old). At first it was very hard and I had a couple of friends from Iraq and Iran. It was a little hard to speak English but now I’m much better and my favorite class is math. I miss my grandparents and my friends back home. Now I have two good friends from Congo and I really like American-style chicken and pizza.

Jwana: I am in first grade. I really like America. Now I am learning the alphabet and draw pictures of girls in pretty dresses. My friend Mary and I play in the park a lot and another friend gave me a very pretty and colorful bracelet on my arm for my birthday. My favorite thing to do is ride my bike outside and I love pizza, too.

What are your hopes and goals now that you’re in the United States?

Ali: We want our kids to grow up and go to school to be some sort of professionals. John wants to be a policeman (very popular in Turkey) and Jwana wants to be a math teacher. After the first couple of months here in Atlanta we met many people and they have helped us learn English and with many other things.

Aras: After I learn English better I want to continue to go to school and then after that we both want to get better jobs.

Ali: I would like to open my own tailor shop.

Aras: In Syria and Turkey we were always so afraid and we are very happy here. I thank the USA—I’m very happy that my kids are learning English and going to school like me. I give my thanks to President Obama for accepting us: the people here really take care of us.

Benjamin Kweskin: Specializing in the Middle East, International Affairs, and US Foreign Policy, Benjamin Kweskin has been researching and writing for over fifteen years and has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and beyond.

He has presented his research in various venues and settings, including at several national and international academic conferences and has published numerous articles. In 2013-2014, he lived in the Kurdistan Region (Iraq) for one year in the Region’s capital, Erbil as an educator, lecturer, journalist, and tour guide. He was also the main Historical Researcher for the official Kurdistan Region Tour Guide (2015-2016), the most comprehensive tour guide about this Region to date.

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