(Photo by Tony Abraham)
Philadelphia is still a sanctuary city. The travel ban has been lifted. For the time being, refugees in Philadelphia are safe from federal agencies. As the fog of new policies surrounding refugees clears — albeit, likely just for the moment — every day challenges for Syrian and Iraqi refugee families in Philly persist.
Those struggles weren’t immediately evident at a recent community gathering for local refugee families, hosted by Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture at the Friends Center in Center City. It was the afternoon after President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries in the Middle East from entering the country, yet the room was alive with the vibrancy of Levantine culture — food, dance, music, conversation, the works.
As children performed dabke, a traditional Arab line dance, to live music, family therapist Rabab Alma was making the rounds at tables where adults were convened. Alma lives in Wayne, but she’s been working with Syrian and Iraqi refugee families — most of whom live in Northeast Philadelphia — for almost a year in borrowed space at a church in the Northeast.
“I think I have managed to build a rapport with them,” said Alma. “But they need more.”
The atmosphere was cheery, but the conversations at those tables were about real-life hardships: financial woes and employment issues, trouble with the school system, healthcare. Not to mention the deep trauma that stems from escaping a war zone.
“People think refugees are terrorists. They are escaping terrorism. They just want peace and safety,” she said. “They are afraid. They want to abide by the law. They don’t want to be a burden on the community.”
Language has been a problem across the board, from education to employment.
Youth who are being integrated into the public school system have been set back and are older than their classmates. Fitting in isn’t easy when you’re a teenage refugee trying to retain your Arab identity while simultaneously assimilating into American culture.
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"People think refugees are terrorists. They are escaping terrorism."
Career paths have been obstructed by language barriers. An engineer from Syria, for example, will struggle to find a local job in engineering. To provide for their families, Alma said, men are working odd jobs, sometimes only at night.
Mothers are bearing most of the burden, Alma said, on top of trying to adjust to life in America. Gender roles are different here. It’s a culture shock.
Through her nonprofit, Al-Bustan founder and executive director Hazami Sayed and her staff have been hosting gatherings for refugees since autumn. Sayed is not a social worker, but she’s been engaging refugees and working with local organizations such as HIAS Pennsylvania and Nationalities Services Center, which both provide refugees with social services.
“When they arrive, they’re given housing and some furnishings such as sheets and basic items for their kitchen,” she said. “They’re given three months of rent, but they’re on their own after that. Not all of them find jobs within three months.”
From food drives to music lessons for refugee children, Al-Bustan has been providing support where it can as an arts organization. But even arranging gatherings like the one inside the Friends Center can be difficult.
“The Northeast is so far removed from the rest of the city,” said Sayed. For all three gatherings, Al-Bustan has had to arrange for buses to do pick-ups and drop-offs. “If you want to be a supporter or a mentor, the Northeast is not typically on your way.”
Distance is a problem for Alma, too. She’s only able to travel to the Northeast from Wayne once a week.
“I’m glad I’ve been given this opportunity to help, but we are in desperate need of therapists who speak Arabic,” she said.
These are problems refugee families have and will continue to face. It’s up to service providers, Arabic speakers and employers to help solve them.
Sanctuary may provide a means of survival, but it does not necessarily provide the means to thrive.