Home Community and Culture From Syria to San Diego: a refugee's life away from home

From Syria to San Diego: a refugee’s life away from home

Raghad Al Bawab
Photo by: Melisa Cabello Cuahutle

Raghad Al Bawab spent her childhood summers playing basketball, swimming, and practicing gymnastics in Damascus, Syria. Then came the war.

Today, she lives in San Diego, California where she works as a pharmacy technician while studying at a community college and works to bring awareness of what it is like to be a refugee.

Al Bawab is part of the 13.5 million Syrians who have been displaced from the war. She and her family are part of the 22,500 Syrian refugees who resettled in the U.S. She was 12 when the war started.

The conflict started in 2011 and stemmed from peaceful protests asking for government reforms and for an end to corruption, inequality, and repression. The situation quickly escalated and violence erupted. Back then most people would never have thought that it would turn into what we know today. In fact, many thought the situation would be fixed in months.  

This year is the 10th anniversary of the start of the war. After Syrian President Bashar al-Assad responded with guns to the peaceful protests, some protestors answered back. During the first year, the conflict was between the army under the president’s rule, the rebels (some of which were defectors of the army), and Kurds, an ethnic group who was seeking autonomy. By 2012, it turned into a proxy war as more countries got involved by funding and helping the different groups. The year after that, al-Assad started using chemical weapons.

Under the Obama administration, the U.S. started opposing al-Assad, sending support to the rebels in the form of arms and CIA training. In 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was formed and they started fighting the rebels and the Kurds. The U.S. then shifted its focus towards ISIS and started bombing them. By 2016, Trump had declared that al-Assad should be permitted to stay in power. But that same year, the Syrian President started using chemical weapons again, which instigated Trump to send missiles.

Although Trump pulled out the U.S. troops from Syria in 2018, President Biden conducted airstrikes in Syria as his first authorized military action. Ten years after the conflict first began, it doesn’t look like the Syrian crisis will end anytime soon.

Back in 2011, Al Bawab and her family were among the ones who thought the situation would improve. But by 2012, they had lost their house. Her father, Mohamad Al Bawab, had lost his workshop and business where he created art with wood.

The Al Bawabs moved to her aunt’s house with at least three other families. With an uncertain future and an escalating conflict, they decided to leave for Jordan, as they heard of people who had gone to then resettled in another country. Without a house and without a job, Al Bawab’s father had to sell his car in order to buy plane tickets.

“We lost everything, so we decided to go to the closest area there, which was Jordan,” Al Bawab said. “We decided to go there and start all over.” 

Between 2011 and 2018, more than 670,000 Syrians sought refuge in Jordan alone, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The plan was simple: go to Jordan, apply for a refugee visa through the UN, find a safe place to live. But the Al Bawab family wouldn’t arrive in San Diego until December of 2016. 

“We didn’t really expect to stay in Jordan for that long. It was a very hard place to live, especially for refugees because they didn’t really want (us) to live there; they don’t really have a lot of resources. It was hard,” said Al Bawab. 

A refugee is a “person who is forced to leave their country and cannot return because of a legitimate fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political activity or membership in certain social groups,” described Laurel Dalsted, Development Manager of the International Rescue Committee in San Diego, where Al Bawab and her family get legal, cultural and financial aid.

The resettlement process was stressful. According to Al Bawab, they did not choose the new place to resettle, but they were offered to come to the USA and they accepted. 

“They will just tell you ‘we will call you,’ this is very hard because, to some people, they never call them back,” said Al Bawad, who struggled with the uncertainty of knowing if their request would get approved.

Refugees have little control over the process and many times it is up to the country where they are registering for how long or how easy the process is.

“When it comes to registering refugees UNHCR works with the various countries that are hosting Syrian refugees in the area,” said Andrea Mucino-Sanchez, Associate Public Information & Communications Officer of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “UNHCR works with governments to set up registration processes but it’s really up to states to conduct, to set them up, to put the infrastructures in.”

Refugees must have several phone interviews and calls, and not everyone is accepted into the program. 

Several of her family members went through the process, but while Al Bawab, her parents, and her siblings got resettled in Arizona, her aunt was resettled in Maryland. Her grandmother was not called to be resettled so she stayed alone in a country that was not her own.

Who gets accepted and how long the process takes is made on a “case by case basis,” according to Mucino-Sanchez.

This makes the process uncertain for many.

“It’s very hard to work with them, they didn’t understand.” Al Bawab’s family tried to bring their grandmother, but she was never called and passed away in Jordan. “She didn’t get to be here,” she said.

Ever since they arrived, the Al Bawabs have been separated from their extended family.

Arriving in a new country as a refugee is challenging, according to Dalsted. You go from being persecuted to “suddenly go somewhere and find a job.” Refugees have a lot of pressure to get established, and most of them are financially unstable and have language barriers.

Their first stop in the U.S. was Arizona, where they found few resources. Al Bawad was 18 and she didn’t speak English which meant that she couldn’t attend a regular high school. Instead, she attended a charter school that was partially online, but that meant that she couldn’t interact with others and practice English.

Her dad also struggled to find a good job so they decided to leave for San Diego, a place they could drive to. “We decided to come and try,” she said. 

The language barrier and her lack of a high school diploma presented difficulties, but it wasn’t their only struggle.

“Everything is different, new language, new culture,” said Al Bawab. One of the most difficult parts of starting over was the fact that they were in a new place that they didn’t know and were alone at, “(We have) to adapt to this new idea that we don’t have any relatives to go like we used to, we don’t have the chance to get out (of the country) because if we get out we can’t get in again.”

Despite the difficulties of living in a different place, Al Bawab thinks that “most people make us feel welcome” and that San Diego is “a very beautiful and diverse place,” though expensive.

In Syria her father, Mohamad Al Bawab, had a business of woodcrafts and arts that he was passionate about, he couldn’t work on it while in Jordan, and now he is trying to pursue it. “He’s trying,” she said.

The family has spent almost five years in San Diego. Al Bawad finished her high school education at Urban Corps in 2018 and has since been studying at San Diego City College as a biology major, with the hopes of becoming a doctor. She also works in a CVS as a pharmacy technician in order to help her family out. 

Being a college student and working in a fast-paced environment means that long were the days where she could play outside her house or stay out late with her family and friends. But she said that San Diego with its clear skies is a place for her to not only dream but also work for what she wants. 

However, even though life in San Diego looks very different from life in Syria, one cannot just leave the latter behind.

Al Bawab mentioned that when she was a child she did not understand what was happening in the country, but she knew it was a beautiful place, “the people care about each other a lot, families are together.”

“I remember that we used to go out with our families at 2 a.m. and it (was) very safe, we could go by ourselves,” she said, “it was safe.”

The death toll of the Syrian war is over 606,000 as of June 2021, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

With the war having so many sides, groups, and countries involved, the situation is complex, but one thing is clear: the war changed everything. 

“(Some) are fighting under the Islam name and are doing horrible things that Islam didn’t ask for, they are just using the name,” said Al Bawab,  “It’s not about killing people, (the religion) is very peaceful.” 

There are many sides involved, and the people fighting do not necessarily support their side. “Even the people who are in the military, they don’t want to be there, some of them want to get out,” said Raghad. “They have been taking many young people (to the army),” children and elders are getting killed.

Al Bawab describes that living in a war zone is more than just living in fear all the time. It involves not knowing if your family can stay together, and is also about not finding the resources needed to survive. 

“They don’t always have life necessities like water, food, electricity.” During winter, they can’t always stay warm. “There are many more issues than we think.”

In Syria, 95% of the population lacks appropriate healthcare, 70% do not have access to clean water, 80% of the population lives in poverty (and in total, 70% of people in Syria live in extreme poverty) and half of the children are out of school, according to World Vision.

Al Bawab showed interest in aiding and spreading awareness of organizations that help refugees specifically. Some of these are Mercy Corps, which provides assistance with basic needs, Save The Children, which has emergency response programs for refugees around the world, and Doctors Without Borders, which provides medical help. The International Rescue Committee also provides ways to help without donating money.

Finding basic supplies in refugee camps was hard enough, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made it harder for refugees to find access to food, clean water, medicine, and other essential supplies.

But even before the pandemic, the situation in Syria had only been getting worse. As countries around Syria closed their borders, leaving the region and finding safety has been increasingly more difficult.

“It’s very hard and complicated to see that no other country is helping,” said Al Bawab. “Most of my family is still in Syria, when I talk to them I can see their struggles.” 

She would like to return to Syria one day even with all of the reconstruction that needs to be done. “It is very difficult to live in a country that is not your own,” Al Bawab said. 

Melisa Cabello Cuahutle
Melisa Cabello Cuahutlehttps://melisacabelloc.wordpress.com
Melisa Cabello Cuahutle grew up in Mexico City and Baja California. She is currently based in Los Angeles where she is pursuing a double major in Political Science and Journalism. She mostly writes about international and social issues, as well as social media.
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