Syrian Family Finds Support, Tough Transition In North Carolina
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Two thousand refugees from Syria arrived in the U.S. this year. Next year thousands more are expected. Winston-Salem, N. C., is home to several Syrian families. Emily McCord with member station WFDD met one family who settled there recently, and she chronicled the challenges that family faces.
EMILY MCCORD, BYLINE: If you're a guest at the Alsahkita's apartment, you take off your shoes before entering and you're greeted warmly. They always offer Arabic coffee. It's dark, strong and spicy.
MUNZER ALSAHKITA: Now we can drink.
MCCORD: Munzer Alsahkita has a salt-and-pepper beard and a friendly face.
MUNZER ALSAHKITA: For you.
MCCORD: Thank you.
Their apartment is modest. Two bedrooms for this family of five, but it's tidy and comfortable. They've lived here only a few months and it's very different from their last place. His house in Syria was large and full of windows, so he could see the bombs dropping all around them in Damascus.
MUNZER ALSAHKITA: (Through interpreter) It was terrifying. When things started getting rough, we'd look for a safe place. We'd have to go into the bathroom because it had two walls before things slowed down enough and we could go down into the shelter.
MCCORD: The decision to leave wasn't easy. Sleepless nights, checkpoints where he and his family were blackmailed and unease that his three teenaged daughters weren't safe. He fled to Turkey where he was referred to a resettlement agency, which helped the family for 15 months. He fights back tears remembering the moment he learned they had plane tickets for Chicago.
MUNZER ALSAHKITA: (Through interpreter) They welcomed us in a way that even your family wouldn't do for you.
MCCORD: The Alsahkitas' journey ended in North Carolina. The states largest resettlement agency, World Relief, organizes community support. About 20 volunteers were there when the family arrived at the airport. The agency paid their bills for several months and helped furnish the apartment.
MUNZER ALSAHKITA: (Through interpreter) We knew America was a civilized place, but this was much more than we expected. We're grateful for this connection, this human-to-human connection.
MCCORD: But every day after that has been a challenge. Little things like the weather, the trees, even the squirrels make this place feel foreign. And there are big differences, like grocery shopping. They're embarrassed because they couldn't communicate.
HAIM ALSAHKITA: America at first very difficult because very big change in my life (laughter).
MCCORD: Munzer and his wife, Haim, are taking English classes. Their younger daughters attend public school and the eldest is 18 and at a community college.
HAIM ALSAHKITA: (Foreign language spoken).
MCCORD: She says her older daughter has the most trouble adjusting because of the language barrier. The most immediate concern, though, is finding work for Munzer.
BRIAN LANE: Do you have Internet at home.
MUNZER ALSAHKITA: No. I don't have - haven't a computer.
MCCORD: Brian Lane with the local job center helps Munzer get a login and password so you can search for jobs online.
LANE: Let me show you one trick. If you hold down the shift, that makes your capital.
MCCORD: This is no easy task, looking for letters on a keyboard in a language not his own. It's hard enough that Munzer's from another country, but he's also not young. He's 60 and struggled with machine work and other factory jobs that he's gotten.
MUNZER ALSAHKITA: (Through interpreter) I worked for 15 days in a cables factory. It was very hot there, and I was fasting because I'm Muslim and the last day before I left, I fainted.
MCCORD: He's used to office work. He was an accountant in Syria. The jobs he gets are temporary and don't pay enough. He says he asks every single person he meets to help him find work. He even asked me. He hopes to be a U.S. citizen one day...
MUNZER ALSAHKITA: I hope that.
MCCORD: ...Because despite how hard this has been, he's grateful to be one of the few Syrian refugees here now. He says for him, a home is a place where he's safe. For NPR News, I'm Emily McCord in Winston-Salem, N. C.