Features

Families still separated, more than a year later.
Will the administration keep its promise?

April 6, 2018

At his home in New London where he lives with his wife and three children, Rashid Jemmo recalls happier times in Syria. He worked the family’s land in Afrin, harvesting garlic, tomatoes, and olives for oil. He shared a house with his siblings, each taking a floor for their families.

‘We ate together,” Rashid said. “We laughed together. We sang and played music together. We celebrated all the birthdays and holidays together.”

Now the family is separated. Rashid arrived in New London last June and his sister, Fahima, lives in nearby Ledyard. Their brother, Abdulrahman, is in Turkey with his wife and three children, unable to secure visas to enter the United States.

“He should have come at the same time as us,” Rashid said. “They accepted us, but they didn’t accept my brother. They said his paperwork is not ready. They don’t give us answers.”

With President Trump’s travel ban and the implementation of onerous new rules, it has become increasingly difficult for Syrian refugees to enter the United States. The administration has placed travel restrictions on citizens of eight nations, including Syria. Refugee admissions are limited to 45,000 this year, down from a goal of 110,000. But in the first six months of this fiscal year, only 10,548 refugees entered the United States, putting the country on track to welcome just 21,000 this year.  This drastic drop in assistance is occurring when the world is experiencing the highest levels of displacement on record, with 22.5 million refugees living in limbo outside their homelands.

Since the 45,000 limit was imposed, IRIS has welcomed refugees at an exceptionally erratic rate—one month this fall we welcomed over 60 refugees, but now there is only one family due to arrive this month.  At this rate, IRIS will welcome roughly 250 refugees this year – the same volume IRIS resettled before the Syrian crisis.

While the Jemmo family is grateful for the help they have received in settling into a new life, they are also bewildered and frustrated by their inability to bring their brother and his family. “We don’t know what we can do to help and who to talk to,” Rashid said.

Their odyssey began with outbreak of the civil war in Syria in 2011, during the Arab Spring protests across the Middle East. At first the Jemmo family wasn’t worried. Afrin, a predominantly Kurdish town near the border with Turkey, was far from the fighting.

“We didn’t know when the day might come that the war would travel to where we were,” Rashid said. That day came in 2013. Refugees started arriving from Damascus and Aleppo. Fighting broke out near Afrin between rebel groups and the Syrian Army. The Islamic State also intervened, as did Turkish forces.

Rashid recalled a trip to a marketplace on the outskirts of town to buy food. It was the last such trip he would make.

“We would have to go there very carefully to bring food back and pray to God that we would get back because we had to dodge bombs and bullets. We went once and never tried again because it was too dangerous.”

“The situation was getting worse,” Rashid said. The family could not work their land safely, and the Islamic State threatened to shoot anyone trying to bring food into Afrin. One rebel group took a payoff from Turkey to stop helping the town’s Kurdish residents.

One night Rashid and his family packed small suitcases and a few bags of food and left. “We walked through mountains and valleys. It took five hours to get to Turkey. Every hour or so we stopped and hid from the Turkish military. They were along the border and would shine lights and shoot anybody that tried to cross.”

The family ended up in Izmir, near Istanbul. They found an apartment and Rashid landed a job as a carpenter. His brother arrived a year later, and with the help of their sister in the US, they started applying for visas themselves. For Rashid’s family, the process took two years.

Early in 2017, Rashid and his family settled in Baltimore. In June of that year, with the help of IRIS and a co-sponsor group, Start Fresh, they relocated to New London to be near Fahima. Rashid now has a job at Mohegan Sun casino, where he maintains and cleans fountains and gaming machines. His wife, Amal, runs the household and his children, Abdul, 16, Mostafa, 14, and Aminah, 8, are in school.

They still hold out hope that Abdulrahman and his family can join them.

“We used to do everything together,” Rashid said. “He was waiting for his turn to come, but it didn’t come.”

– Article and photo by John Curtis

      Originally published in “Lyme & Old Lyme Neighbors,” August, 2017. Best Version Media, www.bestversionmedia.com.