The smell of a strong, dark coffee, poured into ornately designed tea cups, mingles with flowing conversations spoken in Arabic and interspersed with laughter.
Two women wearing hijabs sit on the living room couch as they drink. One appears to be in her early twenties. The other still has a vibrance that glows when she smiles, but her face also bears a slight impression that hints at a longer journey.
A man sits on a smaller couch nearby. His youngest son, who is 6 years old, rests his head on his father’s lap.
We had everything we could ever ask for.”
– Waed Alhamoud
Two other boys, ages 8 and 12, and a girl, 10, with long, dark black hair that reaches the middle of her back, wander in and out of the room.
This is Fadi Lababidi and Waed Alhamoud’s apartment where they and their children live — but it is not their home.
Their home is, or was, Syria.
The young woman sitting on the couch is a volunteer translator from a refugee service provider. Alhamoud and her family are refugees, torn from the country they loved.
“Syria is one of the most beautiful countries in the world,” Alhamoud remembers as she speaks through the translator. “The nature there is beautiful, and it has a lot of amazing lakes and rivers. Everyone loved each other there. We had everything we could ever ask for.”
Alhamoud and her family were torn away from their home in 2011, after civil war broke out.
The sound of bombs exploding became more frequent near their apartment in Damascus, until they decided it wasn’t safe anymore.
Lababidi left to live in Jordan where he often went on business. His wife and three kids were expected to follow once he found housing.
“The first difficulty was finding a car to drive to the border, and then the second thing was trying to get into the border,” Alhamoud says. “We went back and forth four times.”
Finally, they paid off the guards and were let across.
Soon after they made it to Jordan, the family’s apartment in Damascus was bombed, and as was the case in much of the city, only rubble remained.
The bombing proved they had made the right decision to leave, but it also meant they would never return home.
“When we went to Jordan, the system wasn’t easy,” Lababidi recalls. “Amman is such a small city there wasn’t much room. The kids continued to go to a school for a year and a half. I couldn’t find a job, and no one wanted to hire me.”
They received some help from nonprofits, but the benefits they were promised didn’t always reach them.
The problems with aid aren’t a surprise. There are an estimated 1.3 million Syrians now living in Jordan, and organizing enough aid to help them all can be difficult. The large number of refugees is also putting a strain on Jordanian resources.
The Brookings Institution says the influx of refugees into Jordan would be comparable to the United States taking in more than 23 million refugees in just two years.
As a result of the high demand, other countries, including Germany, Sweden and the U.S., are starting to take in refugees.
The U.S. began bringing in Syrian refugees in October and expects to allow in a total of 2,000 by the end of the fiscal year.
But that is only a small fraction of Syrians seeking refugee status. The United Nations estimates a total of 9 million people have fled Syria.
So when Lababidi and Alhamoud applied for refugee status, they knew it was a long shot.
But after three years in Jordan, they received the news. They and their children were granted refugee status.
They were assigned to live in Indiana, a place they had never heard of.
“We found out we were coming to Indiana 15 days before we came to the U.S., so I Googled Indiana,” Lababidi says. “I wanted to learn more about Indiana, the history and the rules and regulations of the state.”
The State Department normally sends refugees to cities where they have friends or family. But Lababidi and Alhamoud didn’t know anyone in the U.S., so the government used a kind of formula to determine which location had the resources to best meet their needs.
The department determined that place was Indiana.
“The main thing is that refugees go to a place that’s welcoming, that has a cost of living they can survive in, that has employment and opportunities,” says Carleen Miller, the executive director of Exodus Refugee Immigration, which is handling Syrian families’ resettlement in Indianapolis.
She points out that the Islamic Society of North America is based just outside of Indianapolis in Plainfield. There is also a mosque which many Syrians attend in Fishers and a group of Christian Syrians at a nearby church.
“There are people who are interested in Syrians in our city, so it makes for a good environment for them to be successful,” Miller says.
Increased Security for Syrian Refugees
Exodus Refugee Immigration has resettled three Syrian refugee families in Indianapolis so far.
Miller calls the process long and arduous.
“The U.S. has the most rigorous screening process where they do at least five security checks on refugees coming into the country,” she says.
Syrians are also receiving additional scrutiny, although State Department officials aren’t saying exactly what that is.
“It’s a hard balance to strike,” says former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Indiana, who served as chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran.
It’s a hard balance to strike…You want to trust, but you want to verify.”
– Former Congressman Lee Hamilton
“You want to welcome these people into this country and into the state, but at the same time you want to be careful about it. You want to trust, but you want to verify,” Hamilton says.
The cause for concern and an extra watchful eye is the threat of radicals who might try to enter the U.S. as refugees. Even while most people acknowledge the vast majority of people applying for refugee status are harmless and are in a real need of help, the small possibility of extremists trying to get into the U.S. via refugee status is raising questions.
Federal counterterrorism experts testified to the House Homeland Security Committee that the Syrian population was a concern. Republicans on the committee went further, saying it would be mistake to bring in refugees from Syria.
“We have a lot of experience with this with Afghanistan, with Iraq, with Somalia and other places where the United States has taken refugees in from,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki countered at a recent press conference. “Refugees are the most carefully vetted of all travelers to the United States. Every refugee under consideration for admission to the United States undergoes the same intensive security screening involving multiple federal intelligence, security and law enforcement agencies.”
Congressman Hamilton, who is the current director of the Center on Congress, says he expects the extra screening likely varies greatly depending on the individual.
“If it’s a very young person, a child, you probably don’t need to follow that person closely,” he says. “An elderly person, likewise. The people you really have to keep your eye on, to be blunt about it, are young men. They’re not exclusively the problem, but they’re the overwhelming part of the problem.”
Hamilton says that’s why police must keep tabs on refugees after they enter the country — often through random checks of the places they frequent, such as the churches or mosques they attend — but he is quick to reiterate that in the overwhelming majority of cases, refugees are hard working people who simply want to make a better life for themselves and their families.
Creating a Space for Refugees
Advocates for refugees are more worried about another issue: mental health.
Most Syrian refugees are coming from a particularly traumatic situation and are reminded of it in the daily news reports about the war. Many have left family and friends in their home country who are in harm’s way.
“[There’s] also the trauma of resettling, and restarting your life is difficult and there’s a lot of grief involved,” Carleen Miller from Exodus Refugee Immigration, explains.
The U.S. cannot say how many more Syrians might come to Indiana specifically, but service providers are doing their best to prepare because refugee populations tend to build on each other.
“This year the number will be small and it may grow as we get a few families, and then their relatives will come and then their relatives will come,” Miller says.
That’s what happened with the Burmese population in Indiana.
In 2002, there were only a handful of Burmese refugees in the state. Indiana is now home to more than 10,000 Burmese people — the largest Burmese population living outside of Burma.
A few months after arriving in the state, Lababidi and Alhamoud’s kids are already making new friends at schools and are working hard to learn English.
“I love Indiana,” 10-year-old Salemah says when asked if she likes living in the U.S.
“America, I love you, and school, I love you,” 6-year-old Hamzeh mimics, showing off the English he’s learned in the last six months.
When I came here, I saw my children’s future.”
– Fadi Lababidi
But the children haven’t forgotten their home country or the ones they’ve left behind.
“I miss all of Syria,” says Mohammed, 8. “I miss the farm and the parks around our house, but the thing I miss most about Syria is my grandma and grandpa and aunts.”
Twelve-year-old Ibrahim poses his remembrance in more typical teenage fashion.
“I’d like to give a shout out to all my friends in Syria,” he says. “I miss them very much.”
Both kids and parents agree, they likely won’t return to Syria. There’s no end in sight to the conflict.
“If Syria was safe again, I would go back,” Lababidi says. “I love Syria very much, but when I came here, I saw my children’s future. I want my children to have a better future and a better life.”
Alhamoud echoes her husband’s sentiment.
“I also love Syria very much,” she says. “My family is still in Syria. But if we go back there will be no schools and no future for my kids in Syria, and they will just stay at home. Then what is the point of going back if my kids won’t have a future?”