Hard but steady steps: a Syrian refugee moves forward in his new life in the US

Ahmed Abizaid, with two of his five children, is working to build a new life for himself and his family in a Chicago suburb after fleeing the violence in Syria. Photo credit: Coco McCabe
Ahmed Abizaid, with two of his five children, is working to build a new life for himself and his family in a Chicago suburb after fleeing the violence in Syria. Photo credit: Coco McCabe

When gunfire shattered his leg, Ahmed Abizaid saw what was left of the life he loved vanish in an instant.

The room erupts in oohs and aahs when Ahmed Abizaid, the proud papa, shows off his new baby. She’s just 45 days old, born in the US, and swaddled in a blanket. Scampering around him is another daughter, Sham, a sprite of a child with curly dark hair dressed in an outfit of fairytale invention—part princess, part ballerina, and wholly irresistible.

Here in this first-floor apartment in a suburb of Chicago there live three other children, too—all at school—so it’s fairly quiet this early September morning, quiet enough for Abizaid to revel, briefly, in memories of his old life in Syria, before bullets shattered his leg and left the fabric of his life in shreds.

“I had my store. I had my employees. I had a driver. I had a very good living in Dera’a,” says Abizaid, an upholsterer. “We worked in everything related to home furnishings. . . And we had seasons where things were even better, like summer and Ramadan. I’d make more profit then.”

Snipers in the streets 

But then the war came, with waves of violence that have ravaged whole communities. Tragedy hit Abizaid’s family hard. One day, when his younger sister stepped out of her house on a quick errand—a milk run for her daughter—she was shot and killed.

“Her daughter was around Sham’s age,” said Abizaid. “We would get goat milk or cow milk for the children to drink. It wasn’t that far—like a matter of 200 meters only ... It was in the middle of the day.” But none of that mattered. A sniper took her life. Another almost robbed Abizaid of his.

“It was November. I was leaving work and in Dera’a, if you wanted to get through five meters in a street, you needed to think for an hour how to do that,” he said. “There were snipers. There were gunners. I was hit by a machine gun.”

The shots tore through Abizaid’s thigh. So severe was the injury that for the first 15 minutes he felt absolutely nothing, but racing through his mind were his wife and children and deep anxiety about what might become of them.

Azizah Alhaj Ali, who fled the conflict in Syria and now lives in a suburb of Chicago, holds a treasured memory of her life before. Photo credit: Coco McCabe/Oxfam

Across the border in Jordan

Afraid to go to the local hospital, his townspeople arranged to smuggle him into Jordan, avoiding guards at the border. His family followed him after two months. Five operations later, Abizaid now has steel plates in his leg to stabilize it and is hoping for continued medical care of the injury here.

“It took two years ‘til I could walk,” he said. “The first year I could not put my leg on the ground at all. There was no movement. Now I can walk 200 to 300 meters, and it wears me out.” During his long convalescence in Jordan, Abizaid’s family lived off the bit of money he had saved, proceeds from the sale of his car, and donations. “It was at God’s mercy we survived,” he said. “On help from people.”

When he was finally able to move around without crutches, he managed to find some work in Jordan, first as a security guard in a garage and then as cashier in a cafe—both risky undertakings for any Syrian who, like Abizaid, didn’t have a permit to work there.

“Work permits were only given to those who came into Jordan through immigration,” he said, noting those without them could face deportation. “It was hard.”

Resettled far from home

Tall and rail thin, Abizaid is just 37, but his worn face hints at the hardships he has endured and the worry he now carries for his young family as they strive to build a new life for themselves in a place far from home. Since the crisis began, the US has admitted fewer than 15,000 Syrian refugees through a resettlement program that puts applicants through a rigorous review process that can take 18 months or more to complete.

When Abizaid and his family finally made it here, the strangeness of it all was almost overwhelming.“We didn’t know the language or anything,” said Abizaid, speaking with the help of an interpreter. “I was lost here the first month. I didn’t even go out of the apartment. I would reach the door and stop: It was like I was scared to walk in the street.”

That was in March. And of course things have gotten better, a great deal better. “We’re comfortable,” said Abizaid. “I’m able to interact with people. I used to go to the supermarket before and not know how to pay, or how to do anything. Now I go in and I know what I want, I know how to pay.”

But like many families struggling with the high cost of living in the US, money is a constant source of anxiety for Abizaid, who earns $11 an hour and works a 40-hour week sewing in a factory. After paying rent, the utilities bill, and for transportation to and from work, there is not much left over. And soon, Abizaid will start having to reimburse the US government for the cost of the family’s flights to the states. That’s going to add another $160 a month to his expenses.

Looking ahead

But Abizaid and his wife are not facing all their challenges alone. In Chicago, they have a group of guardian angels watching over them: members of the Syria Community Network, or SCN. Founded by Suzanne Akhras Sahloul nearly two years ago, the organization—an Oxfam ally—has helped support more than 90 families resettled around the city since the crisis in Syria began.

Hadia Zarzour and Suzanne Akhras Sahloul of the Syrian Community Network in Chicago. Photo credit: Coco McCabe/Oxfam

SCN has helped with practical matters, like providing a small washing machine so Abizaid doesn’t have to use the tub, it has also provided some financial support. “Suzanne helped morally, too,” said Abizaid. “She encouraged me with her words...Wherever I go, I say Suzanne stood by us a lot...When you are depressed and someone lifts your spirits, it’s very different.”

As Abizaid feels his way through all the uncertainties in his new life, there is one thing he never loses sight of: the future his children will have. For him, that is the best thing about being in America. There are other satisfactions, too—things some Americans may take for granted since they haven’t experienced otherwise. “We feel safe,” said Abizaid simply. 

But memories of home have a tight hold on Abizaid. “We miss everything from Syria,” he said. “Our neighborhood, our street, our neighbors, our relatives. My father is still in Syria. I haven’t seen him since 2013. Not him or my siblings.” They have all scattered—to Turkey, Germany, Jordan. “I’d like to go back, but this return won’t be soon, for sure,” said Abizaid. “One never gives up on their country, even if heaven was in America.”

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Through the years, we have seen just how much refugees contribute to the communities they live in. We see people who open businesses, become engineers, doctors, artists; people who serve their new country as soldiers and as teachers. But most refugees are not so lucky as Abizaid and are forced to live in the open, or in crowded or insecure temporary camps. 

More than 65 million people have fled their homes because of war, violence, or persecution–more than at any time since records began. The vast majority of these are hosted by poorer countries or by countries which themselves have experienced armed violence or are in conflict.

Right now the world's richest countries are failing to provide adequate assistance and protection to these vulnerable people, and to uphold their fundamental human rights. 

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Photo and story by Coco McCabe