‘We Are So Much More Than Victims’

‘We Are So Much More Than Victims’

‘We Are So Much More Than Victims’

Batool was just a teenager when the Syrian civil war broke out. After living through the worst of the fighting and years in exile, she’s making a new life in Berkeley.


The borders of our world cut not only across international boundaries, they also increasingly stretch deeply into the interior of nations—into our homes, cities, communities, courts, and everyday interactions. Citizenship status, visa status, vulnerability to deportation—these are just a few of the dividing lines increasingly separating our country into different communities with starkly different options for how or if its members become full participants in our national experiment.

As immigrants in the United States, both documented and not, are increasingly under attack—stripped of their status, arrested, and deported—it’s critical that their stories are heard across these borders. “Migrant Voices” is an oral testimony project from The Nation exploring, and listening to, a variety of immigrant voices: from recent arrivals to asylum seekers making their case in the courts, from the undocumented keeping under the radar to the DACAmented on the front lines—people from all over the world who have fled or left their homes and are looking to find, or keep, their place in America.

This is the sixth installment of this series—follow the series here.

* * *

No one could have predicted how quickly Syria would fall apart. A repressive and dictatorial dynasty, a lasting and severe drought, sustained high unemployment rates, stoked religious tensions, as well as the winds of revolt blowing throughout the region during the Arab Spring… all helped provoke an initial march, followed by a brutal government crackdown, and then a swift descent into war.

No one could have predicted, either, how long the Syrian civil war would drag on for, or how bloody it would become. The past eight years have left more than a half a million dead, around 150,000 detained or disappeared, and nearly 13 million pushed from their homes (more than 6.5 million internally displaced and roughly just as many million pushed across a border). In the past month, the situation has turned again as American troops partially pulled out, leaving the Kurds of northern Syria—steadfast fighters against ISIS—vulnerable to slaughter and opening yet another vacuum for Turkish and Russian forces to exert their own violent vying for domination.

For those refugees who managed to escape and have been resettled throughout the world (mostly in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon), around 20,000—less than a third of 1 percent of the total number of refugees created by the conflict—have begun making their new homes in the United States. The Trump administration is losing no time clamping down on even this small number: In 2016, more than 12,000 Syrian refugees entered the country; in 2018, that number dropped to 62. Those individuals and families from Syria who have made it to the United States have been met with nothing but prejudice and rancor from the White House. But the situation on the ground, in communities across the country, isn’t nearly so hostile. In fact, for 21-year-old Batool and her family, the welcome has been remarkably hospitable.

I met Batool in a room on the second floor of the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, where she rents office space to manage her family’s restaurant, Old Damascus Fare, which serves its meals out of the nearby UC Berkeley student union. Batool also works as head barista of 1951, a coffee roasting company that principally employs refugees and immigrants (its name is inspired by the 1951 Refugee Convention). She also attends Berkeley City College, is majoring in psychology, and hopes to transfer to UC Berkeley. She’s been in the country just for four years.

On the day we met she was wearing a light-pink-and-white headscarf, a gray sweater, and jeans. At first she seemed all business—she had reserved the room for our talk, confirmed by text, and sat down looking primed for a serious discussion. But as soon as we got talking, an infectious cheerfulness started seeping through her seriousness. Despite detailing a litany of horrific events and a few existentially trying years, she spoke openly and peppered the topical gloom with laughter and a ready smile. She was insistent not to paint the refugee in general, or her family in particular, as victims.

After talking for a couple hours, we took a break for an espresso from 1951 downstairs, and then walked over to the Berkeley Student Union, where Old Damascus Fare was being currently helmed by her 14-year-old brother, Mohammed. I ordered an off-menu sample plate, which Mohammed prepared for me as he and his sister ribbed each other. “You need help to cook an egg,” Mohammed said. Batool gasped and looked at me. “I taught him.”

The falafel was moist on the inside, slightly crisped, and had an earthy spice to it. The beef mandi, their most original dish (traditionally from Yemen) was smoked rice with beef tips, greened with abundant flecks of parsley, plus cardamom, chopped onion, bay leaves, cloves, and black pepper. It had an envelopingly smoky flavor, and was complexly spicy, but not hot. The Moussaka was cinnamony, the consistency of jam, and I made sure—using warm pita as sponge—not to leave even a stain of it on my plate.

I washed the meal down with an orange-blossom-and-mint water, and took a couple warbats—filo dough, honey, and pistachio pastries—to go. A couple days later I came back for more food—a falafel wrap the size as my forearm and spiced with pickles, humus, and a peppery red sauce—and another chat with Batool.

* * *

Batool, 21 Years Old

I’m Batool Rawoas. I’m 21, and originally from Damascus, Syria. We got here in March 2015, after being resettled as refugees. I’m going to school at Berkeley City College, and hopefully I’ll transfer to UC Berkeley. It took a lot to decide what my major would be, but I finally decided on psychology. I’m looking for another major, too, something very different. I’m really passionate about psychology, but there’s so many things that could get mixed in. Like public health, or photography. I’m just exploring my options for now.

Syria, in general, used to be known for being very safe. In Damascus, before the war, if you and your friends were, at 3 am, like, “Hey, let’s go get some ice cream,” you could go into the street and there’d be a lot of people, restaurants open, everything full of life. But after the war started, you would be walking the street, two in the afternoon, and all of the places closed. It turned into a ghost town.

The war started in 2011, in Daraa. Suddenly, we noticed there was all this attention from the media, like from Al Jazeera, about what was going on in South Syria, and whoa, it’s really not pleasant to hear news like that about your own country. And at first we were like, Oh it’s just marching, it will calm down. But it just kept growing and growing and then suddenly it was the whole city marching, and people were getting arrested. Kids marched in the streets, and the government went against them, and then the families went against the government. Why would you torture kids in this way?

And then it spread, and it started happening in different cities. About eight months later, it got to Damascus. We would open the window and we would see people in the streets marching and screaming and yelling, “We want this,” or “Change the government,” or “Do this and that.” It was terrifying. We were like, “Oh my God, it’s in Damascus now.” And that was the beginning of it. It was scary, but it was just the beginning.

Okay, we thought, that’s the worst that it can get, but then the explosions and the bombing started, and you saw big tanks driving in the street just like a car going by, and electricity would go off for a month, or even longer. The streets would be blocked, people would be forced to stay in their homes with no phones, no electricity. All of the connections would be completely shut off. It was just a crazy, terrifying experience.

Even if my parents tried to sugarcoat it, like, “Oh no, it’s just a little conflict,” they couldn’t do that. Even a 5-year-old kid could see dead bodies in the street. Or you would wake up and find the Army in your house. I remember when my mom accidentally stepped over a dead body that was under a piece of cardboard. Or seeing a tank shooting at a building. You have to keep your windows open or they would break—the sound was that loud. You don’t know if a strike comes down, or a bomb would land on your house and that’s the end.

And then the Army guys dressed up with their full weapons, with their hats, with everything, and different checkpoints every few blocks, and at each checkpoint they would say, Show us your ID, and then do an inspection. Inspect the car, inspect everything. Each checkpoint might take five minutes, or it might take an hour.

Things started to get crazy at this point. We would never leave one person behind in the house. Even, say, if my dad wanted to go to the food market and wanted to buy groceries for the house, we would all get into the car, with an emergency bag of clothes, and go with him. We had to be ready for everything. The checkpoints, the explosions, it was like when you watch an action movie, you’re like, whoa, that’s impossible. But it actually happened, and it was actually worse than what you see in the movies, ten times worse.

We lived in the Ein Tarma neighborhood, in the middle of the city. My dad had a clothing factory before the war. He designed and made all sorts of clothes, shirts, scarves, baby clothes. It was unfortunate timing, because he always dreamed of having that sort of big company. He had 50 employees working on the machines, making clothes. But with the situation he had to shut down the whole place, even leave the machines behind, without selling anything, and we just had to escape.

Just like everyone else, at first we were like, Oh, it’s gonna go away. The issues will just calm down. Life will go back to normal. But we couldn’t just stay there and freeze with the situation like it was. We needed to continue our education and my dad needed to work. And as a family of six, we needed to survive. And so we decided to apply for a visa and go to Saudi [Arabia]. We had relatives there. And we thought we would stay in Saudi for a couple of months until, hopefully, things calmed down in Syria.

But our paperwork from Saudi was taking a very long time. And the situation in Syria got to the point where we were like, Let’s just wait in Jordan, and from there, hopefully, we’ll get approved and move to Saudi, and if not, we’ll go back to Syria, it will be fine. We finally left Syria one year after the war started. My sister was going to be in 12th grade. My youngest brother in kindergarten. And I was about to start 10th grade.

So we went to Jordan, and a few months after we went there, the situation got much worse, especially on the border, and the Jordanian government decided, That’s it, we don’t want any more Syrians, and we got stuck. Because if we went back to Syria, there was no way to actually leave again, because none of the countries were really accepting any Syrians, even as visitors, as visa holders. So we stayed in Jordan. And, unfortunately, we were not accepted by the Saudis, and we were stuck in Jordan for two and a half years trying to figure out our life.

We lived in Amman. The first two months were kind of nice because the community was very friendly, supportive of the situation. And they basically welcomed us and we thought, “OK, this might work,” but then Jordan decided not to welcome any more Syrians, suddenly the whole community started up against us, and they were like, We don’t want you in our country. You stole our land. Get out of our place. For me, personally, as a high school student, I felt not embarrassed, but afraid of showing that I was Syrian, or of talking with my Syrian accent. Because if someone who hates Syria in the street sees me, they would try to fight me. What are you doing in my country? Go home! You are stealing our land!

It was definitely frustrating. Sometimes it was hard to wake up in the morning. Oh God, I have to go to school and face these people. But my mom is one of these tough moms who is like, “You have to go to school. You have no option.” But just like the discrimination, in general, was not such a great feeling. And Syrians were not allowed to have jobs [in most sectors]. So for example, if someone has a family, you can’t survive unless you work in secret for cash. Like for my dad, he rented a house away from the commercial area, and he tried again to start a clothing factory. So he purchased two simple clothing machines, and it was only him and my mom at that point. And then he started meeting more Syrians and bringing them into the space, and he started to make another factory in Jordan, but in secret. When they saw the police around they would shut the windows and shut down the machines and stay quiet. Because if they would catch him, they would arrest all of them, and put them in jail, and deport them back to the camp or back to Syria.

It was really an awful experience. I don’t wish this experience for anyone. At that age, you are filled with hope and emotion, and you’re trying to look forward to a future, build your dreams, but you know that there’s no hope…

We applied to the UNHCR, mainly to get us into public schools in Jordan. The application was very big, and my parents took a very long time to fill it out. It had so many papers. The whole family has to go for the application. And as they were filling out the application, there were these questions asking if we had the opportunity to be resettled to another country, would we want to go? And my dad was like, “Yes, for sure. Just get me out of here.” But every step takes so long. And there is a lot of waiting.

We were approved soon after we filled out that application, and then after a year and a half my dad got a phone call, and they asked if we were interested in being resettled. And, yeah! Of course!

He asked where we were going, and they said they didn’t know. I wanted to be resettled anywhere, I didn’t care. They did a few interviews with my dad, and mom, and my sister because she was over 18. And then they invited the whole family for a very intense interview that took like eight hours. You are locked in a room, a room like this, and at first they interview the whole family, and then one by one, and they take so long. They wanted to find out if we were lying about any part of our story. One of the interviewers was Syrian, and another was from the US. It was overwhelming, to be honest. And if you asked if you were approved to be resettled, they said they didn’t know yet. Just be patient, that’s the only answer they would give. And because I was a kid they were trying to see if I would say anything different than my parents were saying. Did your dad help any person with a weapon? Did he help the Army?

After a few months we got another phone call and they told my dad, you are half-approved for resettlement. They wanted to do more interviews, and a background check, and a medical check for the whole family. We got our fingerprints and blood test, and a lot of other steps. I remember getting another approval, and then we had to go for a cultural orientation. We just wanted to get out of there. We knew wherever we ended up it would definitely be better than staying in Jordan in that situation.

And then a month before being resettled, we got another phone call, and they said, “Get ready, your flight is going to Oakland.” And that was it. We had never heard of Oakland. At first we jumped, we got really excited. I stopped going to school so I could study basic English, to get ready. I wasn’t going to graduate there anyway. But what is Oakland? We looked it up. We got a little terrified at how the media represented Oakland, they said it’s like the second city in the US with the most gangs, and I was like why would they resettle us there?

So we fly to Dubai, then LA, and then to Oakland. We met these people from the IRC [the International Rescue Committee], they drove us home, but our home wasn’t ready yet, so we had to spend a night in an inn in Oakland. The second day they got us to a nice place. It was very small for a family of six. Only two bedrooms and one living room. We stayed there for a year. They gave us just basic house needs. Beds, two couches, a bag of groceries. A bottle of shampoo.

We didn’t know anything about the country. We didn’t know where to find a store selling Arabic food. Or how to ride the bus. Or where to get basic pita! It was funny, but it wasn’t easy. It was very… it was filled with excitement. We just had a lot of hopes. But we saw a few things we didn’t like, or we didn’t expect. Like poverty, or the huge number of homeless people. We would never see that in Syria, or even in Jordan. It was such a shock for us, this amount of homelessness in the US.

Before we got here we had a lot of fears of not being welcomed, or of facing discrimination again, especially because we were Muslim. But, it turned out, it was the opposite of our fears. We would walk in the street, we would find a person who said, “As-Salaam-Alaikum, Oh my gosh!” It was so heartwarming. They were black or Mexican people, just different types of people who would see us and greet us. This was so kind.

But it was hard, too, being here. No one would really give you a job with nothing on your résumé, and my dad didn’t speak English then. So no matter how successful he was in Syria, he still struggled. He worked in a clothing factory for a second, but the factory closed down, and he kept looking for a job. He started working for Uber and Lyft. It was not ideal, but it was something to keep the family going. My mom tried to go to adult school to learn the language. They wanted to make us feel more settled in the country.

People would always come to our home and, after eating, say, “Oh my gosh, this is a feast.” And they would be really impressed by the flavors, the crazy mix of spices they would try. Their reaction was so hilarious to watch. And then that person would have an event going on, and they would say, “I really want this dish.” And they started offering money, and my dad would say, “No, no money, we will do it because you are our friend.” It kept happening, and word kept spreading and we started getting actual catering jobs, at bigger events. And that’s sort of how the business started.

But you know how complicated it is here to get any paperwork done, and it was so challenging for my parents, especially with the whole language thing. That’s when I decided to step in. Okay, I’m going to school, I’m working at 1951. I think I can start a business. That would be a cool experience to take on.

I got so excited. I got the business license. I got the paperwork. I got the name. The logo. I asked for help from community friends. And I remember every time I needed to do something, the sources I was reaching out to didn’t always have the answers, and people kept on referring me to La Cocina. It’s an organization whose mission is to support low-income immigrant females in the Bay Area to start food businesses. When I joined them I already had a lot figured out, but I wanted to grow the company, to move from catering to a storefront.

We’ve been there, in the food court, for just over one year. We would love to open our own big restaurant where we can represent what Damascus food really is, and Syrian culture, and music, and everything. It’s a goal for us.

My parents do the day-to-day operation, the work in the kitchen. I work on the administrative side, but I also jump in there sometimes. And my little brother, being a teenager, was like, I want some money, so now I will work for you guys. But you know how it is to work for your family as a kid, you just want to chill on your phone. But when he actually gets in the mood, he works great. He’s 14 now. My younger sister works there sometimes, but she has her high school life.

We had this idea, once you got to the US: like it was going to be all rainbows, but, oh my gosh, that is not what is real, you have to work so hard for it. But I love the community here. It’s really great to walk in the street and to feel like you are one of this place. You are not different than anyone else. And you are welcomed and accepted for all of your differences, for language, culture, color. Everything about the community here is so beautiful. It feels like home here. And even if the problems were solved completely in Syria, both places are home for me now.

But seeing the news and seeing what all the horrible things that are happening in Syria, or Iraq, or Yemen, or Mexico, or anywhere, it’s sad to know I’m having this safe life here where I know I have a home to sleep in, I have food to eat, I have electricity, I can walk in the streets safely, and people outside don’t really have these things. They might be living in camps, or separated from their families, or have no food. No education. Basically a clean cup of water could be a dream for them.

I don’t think people should be afraid of refugees. We are just basically looking for a home, or for some safe place, until the issue is solved. At first we did not like the term “refugee” just because of how people would look at us, and we felt it was a little humiliating. But then after looking at what “refugee” actually means, and how refugees are some of the strongest people because of what they go through. They go through a lot and still they can just go on, build their life again like nothing happened.

I would just sometimes imagine what it would be like if I lived in another state, besides California, would I have to go through the whole Jordan experience of discrimination again? That’s always a question mark in my head. It’s always something we fear, like why we have to be labeled differently. Or even like for example, the news, when we first arrived we had a few requests to speak, but if you look at the news, they label the refugee as that weak person who is the victim of everything, and cannot do anything. Honestly, it’s kind of humiliating, for that person who went through a lot, and then to be represented in this picture. Because we are so much more than victims. We are families that had normal lives, and suddenly the situation forced us to leave our home. We are the same as you. We want to have business, we want to go to schools, we want to have a normal life, just like every other person, but being labeled always as a victim was not very fun, and I still don’t like it.

I’m a little confused about the situation in Syria right now, and honestly I don’t trust any of the current news, unfortunately, because I remember my experience in Syria, and then looking at the news and seeing the stories that get twisted around. And, of course, it’s sad to know that fights are going on and people are getting killed. Even for your enemy, you wouldn’t wish for them to be getting killed. But it’s not safe to give political opinions about the regime, because that could actually be a risk for your own life or your family. So, sorry, that’s why I don’t want to share a lot about politics. Some of our relatives are still living in Damascus. Some of them tried to leave, but no one wants Syrians anymore.

People need to understand that refugees are not a disease. They are human beings. They’re not trying to destroy anyone’s life. If they had an option to continue on with their life in their home country, they wouldn’t choose to be humiliated in other countries. We are humans like everyone else. You could be sitting in your own home right now and all of a sudden things go upside down and you might end up a refugee somewhere, and you never expected it. Same for us, we never expected it. It just happened.

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