A bomb exploded just a block away from Samer, nearly killing him as he joined one of the many funeral processions streaming across his native Syria. The following year, his uncle was shot dead as he crossed a street in Homs, a western Syrian city that has been pounded into rubble amid the nation’s four-year-old civil war.
The fierce fighting has killed many of Samer’s friends. It brought his ironsmith business to a halt. And it ultimately caused him to flee with his wife and newborn son to Jordan, where they scraped by for three years before resettling in the Atlanta area earlier this year.
The harrowing story Samer recounted to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through an Arabic interpreter illuminates the deprivation and violence plaguing Syria. At the same time, his account offers a window into the refugee crisis spreading across the Mediterranean and now engulfing Europe. Russian airstrikes that recently began in Syria have targeted rebel-held area in the Homs province, already ravaged by violence when Samer left about three years ago.
Memories of pancaked buildings and bodies there still haunt Samer, 32, who asked that his full name not be used to protect a sister still living in Syria.
“All these homes — they were down to the ground. Destroyed,” he said, sitting in the dining room of an Atlanta restaurant where he now works. “You would see this big building where residents were living. And the next morning, you wake up — rubble. Overnight.”
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Samer is among nearly 1,900 Syrian refugees who have resettled in the U.S. since 2011, when the civil war began. Of those, 59 have relocated to the Atlanta area. Under pressure to do more in response to the humanitarian crisis, President Barack Obama recently announced the U.S. will take in 10,000 more displaced Syrians nationwide over the next year.
Since the fighting began in Samer’s native country, 220,000 Syrians have been killed, according to the United Nations. Almost half of the country’s people have been forced to flee their homes. More than 4 million are seeking refuge in neighboring countries, while nearly 8 million more are displaced inside Syria.
Attempting to reach Europe, many are drowning on perilous voyages across the Mediterranean aboard “death boats.” Samer said his friends have walked for days across Turkey and into Eastern Europe, carrying their children in their arms or on their backs.
As Sunni Muslims residing in an Alawite neighborhood in Homs, Samer and his family were living on the edge of an intense sectarian fault line in western Syria. The administration of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who belongs to the Alawite religious sect, is locked in a deadly war with a mostly Sunni insurgency. A rebellion against al-Assad’s government began in 2011 and sectarian violence soon followed.
“The minute the demonstrations started, everybody started figuring out, ‘Are you Shiite? Are you Sunni?’” Samer said. “It’s like they forgot all the good things they had together and they started fighting against each other.”
Samer and his family mostly remained in their home during the war, surviving on a supply of bulgur, lentils and other legumes. They had water and electricity for just a few hours a day. Eventually, their food pantry began to run low.
Growing increasingly fearful about their safety, Samer and his family decided it was time to make a break for it. They paid a smuggler about $100 to drive them to the Jordanian border. Along the way, they had to pass through a series of Syrian military checkpoints, where troops quizzed them about their travel plans. Worrying they would shoot him dead on the spot, Samer used a cover story, telling them he was headed to Jordan on business. There was a ring of truth to his story as his passport carries stamps from past trips to Jordan, where he had delivered iron doors and windows.
When they reached the border, Samer paid another smuggler $100 for a ride to Amman. His family lived there for three years, growing by one: Samer’s youngest son was born there. Samer didn’t have legal permission to work in Jordan, so he supported his family by doing off-the-books jobs as an ironsmith. Meanwhile, he said, Jordanian grocers started price gouging Syrian refugees, making it more difficult for them to make ends meet. Knowing he could be deported to Syria if he were caught working illegally, he applied for asylum for his family. They spent a year going through a rigorous background security checks before arriving in Georgia in April.
New American Pathways, a refugee resettlement agency operating in Atlanta, met them at the airport, fed them, furnished an apartment for them in Clarkston and gave them spending money. The agency also helps refugees enroll in English classes, navigate the area’s public transportation systems and find work.
New American Pathways has resettled 39 other Syrian refugees in Georgia since Samer and his family arrived and the agency is expecting more in the coming months. Paedia Mixon, the agency’s CEO, is struck by how Samer is helping other recent arrivals. He is giving Syrian refugees rides and helping them with handiwork in their homes and grocery shopping.
“He is connecting them to resources, looking out for them, showing them the things that he has seen,” Mixon said. “He has just been a very welcoming member of the community.”
Samer has mixed emotions. He is enjoying his newfound freedom in the U.S., but he deeply misses his homeland. He said he would return to Syria “in a heartbeat,” if peace could take hold there. If not, he dreams of buying his own home and starting an ironsmith business in the U.S.
He recently shared his story in a bustling Mediterranean restaurant in Atlanta’s Mall at Peachtree Center, where he has been hired to make falafel. Kameel Srouji, who owns the Aviva by Kameel restaurant and who speaks Arabic fluently, interpreted for Samer after serving a long line of lunch customers craving hummus, baba ganoush and kibbe.
An Arab Israeli with family connections to Syria, Srouji said he had sought for years to hire Syrians for his expanding business. Syrians, he said, are especially skilled in the kitchen. Srouji also sees his decision to employ Samer in humanitarian terms. The restaurateur — who already employs one other Syrian refugee — plans to hire Samer’s younger brother, a baker who is also resettling in Georgia.
“They are very hard workers,” Srouji said of refugees.
After Samer finished telling his story, a customer who had been eavesdropping approached him, handed him a wad of cash and said, “I heard your story. God bless you.” Still learning English, Samer didn’t quite understand. Srouji explained in Arabic. Samer sat in stunned silence. Then he wiped away a tear.