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Syrian Refugees Get Oriented To The Ways Of American Life


For newcomers to the United States, even routine things like receiving mail can be a mystery. It all seems even more daunting for people arriving from refugee camps - Syrian refugees. It looks like the U.S. will meet an administration goal of resettling 10,000 Syrians in the fiscal year ending in October. Many governors and others have objected, saying there is just not enough security screening. But some 8,000 Syrians are already headed to new homes, along with refugees from other countries at war. NPR's Deborah Amos went to see the orientation the Syrians and others receive to start life in America.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: This Syrian family has been in the country for less than 48 hours - three young kids, one still a baby. The parents look tired - really tired. The Shatat family survived a war at home, endured a refugee camp in Jordan. Now, in a small, crowded office in New Jersey, they're being schooled on their new country and new culture. The kids burn off energy with the donated toys piled up in the front room, while the parents get the bottom line on resettlement. Welcome to America. Now, you have to get to work. In three months - just 90 days - all refugees are expected to be financially self-sufficient with some kind of job - any kind of job - one step in their orientation.

MEGAN JOHNSON: So we have the one family from Syria here. And then the other family over here is from Afghanistan.

AMOS: That's Megan Johnson. She runs the orientation program for newcomers at Church World Service, one of the official organizations contracted by the State Department to resettle refugees.

JOHNSON: So if you want to join our cultural orientation...

AMOS: The Afghan family speaks English. The Syrians do not, so there is a language lag for the simplest details in this full user's manual for life in America, from how to deal with loneliness and depression to what's expected from the kids in school. Everything is new, even the mail. You need a mailbox, says Johnson. That's how you get documents from the government.

JOHNSON: So in order to receive mail, you have to have your name on your mailbox. So it's a piece of paper that you just tape onto your mailbox.

AMOS: And another thing - you have to watch out for bugs that you might not recognize.

JOHNSON: Bed bugs - have you heard about those?

AMOS: Bedbugs are tiny, black dots on a mattress, she explains. And there are cockroaches.

JOHNSON: The baits? It's bait or sometimes a roach hotel.

AMOS: The arrival numbers so far - more than 8,000 Syrians. Aid groups and some Democratic senators call to up those numbers to 65,000, moved by the pictures of a Syrian toddler who drowned off the coast of Turkey last year. The Obama administration made a much smaller commitment - 10,000 Syrian refugees resettled by the end of September, accelerated in the past few weeks.

MAHMOUD MAHMOUD: It is moving fast, so the month of July has been our busiest month. And we have placed five different families that are arriving.

AMOS: Two hundred Syrians have arrived in New Jersey so far, says Mahmoud Mahmoud, director of Church World Service in Jersey City, as State Department approvals are coming faster. He points to a wall calendar with family names and their new addresses. Many more are expected in August.

MAHMOUD: We do expect it to be that heavy because we've received notification from the Department of State that they want to meet those numbers.

AMOS: Get ready. Here they come.

MAHMOUD: Get ready. Here they come. Exactly.

AMOS: The federal government sets the numbers, conducts security screenings. These private aid organizations handle the actual resettlement, from airport pickup, housing, English lessons and help with employment to get them started, says Mahmoud.

MAHMOUD: Our funds last for about three months. So the rent is paid for for three months. And then, on the fourth month, they're expected to pay from there.

AMOS: The Syrian parents are silent and unreadable as the rules pile on, she in a tight headscarf and tired eyes. The resettlement is now a political lightning rod. Not everyone wants them here - not 31 governors who say they're against Syrian resettlement, nor the Republican presidential nominee, who wants to ban anyone coming from an area with terrorism ties. For the Shatats, the latest arrivals, there's a difficult path ahead in any case, with no English, no family ties here and a huge cultural gap. The translator continues with more rules.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Children under the age of 13 should not be left home alone.

AMOS: It's a long list of things that are enforced by law in America. Young children must have a car seat. All children must go to school and get there on time. And there's no corporal punishment. You can't hit or kick your children.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK. It's not OK to hit or kick children to discipline them.

AMOS: It's forbidden, the translator explains in Arabic.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Arabic). OK? OK? You understand this?

JOHNSON: Do you guys want some - popcorn?

AMOS: Megan Johnson signals it's time for a break.

JOHNSON: This is the you-almost-made-it part of orientation.

AMOS: In a way, the Shatat family is lucky. They endured a long journey to get here. Now the challenge is navigating the network of non-profit organizations and volunteers responsible for them until they can make it on their own. As the afternoon grinds on, the adjustment sounds overwhelming. And then I meet another Syrian refugee family. They've come by the office for some extra help. The oldest son, Munzer, tells me they've been here for seven months.

MUNZER: I am so happy (laughter).

AMOS: How many in your family?

MUNZER: We are eight now.

AMOS: Including his youngest sister, born in New Jersey after they arrived. It's tough to adjust, but Munzer, whose family didn't want to give his last name, has already learned some English in school.

Do you feel lucky that you got to America?

MUNZER: Yeah, because this is my dream. I am in America. I will be what I want, like engineer or doctor, teacher, everything.

AMOS: What do you want?

MUNZER: Actually, I want to be a doctor.

AMOS: How old are you, Munzer?

MUNZER: Seventeen. But after one month, I will become 18.

AMOS: If you met me in Jordan, he says, I would be working, not in school. His father decided to come to America for his children's future. Munzer flashes a broad smile. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Jersey City, N.J. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
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