In 2016 10,000 Syrian refugees arrived in the US, welcomed through our humanitarian resettlement program. Families who had spent years living in uncertainty, their country torn apart by civil war, once again had a place to call home. But for one Syrian woman, clearing customs with her family at one of America’s largest airports did not signal the end of uncertainty, but only the beginning.
I met Lubna* in October 2016. Like her, I had recently moved to our sprawling suburban community, and I was struggling to make friends. My mother-in-law, a community college ESL teacher, mentioned that she had a quiet Syrian woman in her class who wanted someone she could practice speaking English with. I was working with a local refugee resettlement agency, so I assumed that Lubna, her husband, and her two sons had come to the US through the State Department’s resettlement program just like 10,000 others. On the first day we met to practice English, she began to tell me her story.
Lubna and her family lived in Damascus, the capital of Syria. She was a successful elementary school teacher and her husband owned a small business. Damascus has been one of the safest cities in Syria throughout the civil war and Lubna didn’t think her family would have to flee the country. But one morning, in the middle of a grammar lesson, a bomb was dropped a few blocks away. Lubna quickly gathered her fourth grade students into the basement bomb shelter. They waited for hours until the shelling stopped and it was safe enough to go home. Lubna didn’t make dinner for her family that night because her hands still hadn’t stopped shaking.
For the first time, Lubna and her husband talked about what it would look like for their family to leave Syria. They had friends from other parts of the country who had already fled and they had heard about the difficult conditions in Jordan and Lebanon’s refugee camps. Lubna and her husband also learned that less than one percent of nearly 6 million Syrian refugees would ever be resettled in a country like the US, Canada, or Australia. Staying in Syria, with bombs dropping around them didn’t seem like an option, but neither did fleeing across the border to live in a refugee camp with no right to work, limited access to education for their two sons, and a 0.5% chance of being chosen for resettlement. So Lubna and her husband decided to risk a third option.
They gathered the money they had saved over the last several years, bought four one-way plane tickets to the US, and packed their bags. After nearly two days of travel, they touched down in the US hoping to apply for a tourist visa that would allow them to stay for up to 6 months. However, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials were suspicious of them, concerned that Lubna’s husband might be planning a terrorist attack and using his family as a false front. Lubna and her husband were interrogated for 8 hours before the immigration officials believed their story and finally gave them the green light on their tourist visa.
As soon as Lubna and her husband found an apartment, enrolled their children in school, and enrolled themselves in advanced English courses they applied for Temporary Protection Status (TPS), a special visa for individuals from countries at war that may be renewed every 12-18 months if the situation in their home country is still unsafe. When I met Lubna her tourist visa was going to expire in two weeks, but they had still not received the results of their TPS application.
At this point in telling her story, tears began to well up in Lubna’s eyes and her voice faltered. She was grieved by the devastation of her country and frustrated by the constant uncertainty her family had to face. “Every day my children ask me, ‘Will we stay here, or will we go back to Syria?’ I don’t know what to say to them,” she told me. I suggested that she and her husband come to see an immigration lawyer at the resettlement agency I was working for, someone who could give them advice about their TPS application and what they should do when their tourist visa expired. But it happened to be the week of Thanksgiving so there were no appointments available and I wasn’t able to get them in to see a lawyer.
A few weeks later, at the end of one of our English practice sessions, Lubna told me that she and her husband were talking about returning to Syria. Their visas had expired and since her husband could not legally work their finances were also tight. “I am afraid,” she told me. “Every day when my husband drives somewhere I am afraid the police will pull him over and since he has no papers they will put us in jail or send us back to Syria.” Though she had no way of knowing what the future would hold for her family in Syria, she said to me, her voice shaking again, “It is better for us to go back to our country and die there together.”
Though I have only spent a few short months getting to know Lubna and practicing English with her, I feel as if we have been friends for much longer, and I will miss her deeply. In my short time living in my suburban community, she, of all people, was the one who made me feel most welcomed, and most loved. “Thank you,” she said to me at our last meeting while squeezing my hand tightly, “thank you for being my best friend in America.”
Tomorrow Lubna, her husband, and her two sweet boys will board a plane back to Syria. I can only pray that God will go with them and keep them safe until their country is at peace and can begin rebuilding. Global conflict and displacement are complicated issues, and many who need assistance and protection may never receive it. Please share this story so that we can all be reminded to listen to someone’s story before judging their situation.
*Lubna’s name has been changed and key details have been omitted in order to protect her and her family’s identity.