Narrative written by Ann de Forest
Photos by Dave Tavani
Questioned by U.S. Homeland Security. “Give us a compelling reason why you want to emigrate?” Yasser was asked. He remembers his answer: “I don’t want to participate in the civil war. I don’t want to be involved in fighting or the military. I could never go and kill somebody,” he said.
Bombs were exploding and glass was shattering outside Yasser Allaham’s classroom window as he took his final exams for high school in Kisweh, Syria. He managed to pass, despite the distraction, and moved to Darraya, a more distant Damascan suburb, to start business school at an institute there. His plan was to study accounting. But Darraya was also a hotbed of anti-government protest, which the Syrian regime was intent to squelch. Soldiers swept through the town one day, shooting and killing people in the streets. Yasser says he barely managed to get out alive. A friend helped him escape. The town was destroyed. The Darraya institute was shut down. Yasser went back to Kisweh and waited to see when his education could resume.
Kisweh occupied a strategic position for the Syrian forces, says 22-year-old Yasser as he takes a seat at a café table in South Philadelphia. Using his espresso cup and two cell phones he makes a map on the tabletop to show how his neighborhood was hemmed in by military bases and mountains. The army launched rockets from the mountains, he says, as he “launches” his ballpoint pen from the edge of his cell phone, then whooshes it horizontal – “straight for Aleppo.” When the rebels fired back, Yasser’s house was in the middle. Day and night, rockets screeched overhead, bombs boomed, and mortar pelted the flat roof of his family’s home.
Despite the upheaval, after three weeks, the ministry of public education re-opened his institute in Kisweh, and Yasser was able to start up classes again. Midway through the semester, though, his parents decided it was time to leave. His sister, whom he says is a brilliant student, especially gifted with languages, had grown anxious, jumping and trembling at any sudden, loud noise. They decided to seek refuge in Jordan, but would pass first through Lebanon, where his father’s uncle lived. Lebanon had an open border with Syria. The plan was to fly from Beirut to Amman, where they hoped they would find “peace and stability, a new life,” says Yasser.
Yasser drove his family – parents, two brothers, and two sisters – on the two-hour trip to the Lebanese border. The whole family had passports, except for Yasser, since ordinarily no passport was required for Syrians traveling to Lebanon. He and his family lived in Lebanon for one month. Then, they boarded a flight to Jordan, and Yasser returned to Damascus to get a passport and other documents together. He was concerned that his military deferment might have expired once he was no longer enrolled as a student. Heading back to Damascus, he worried he might be drafted.
In Damascus, it took Yasser several months to get his papers in order, receiving a passport as well as a three-month extension on his deferment from military duty. He headed to Jordan to join his family. Despite having the requisite documents, Yasser was detained at the Jordanian border for eight hours. He talked to his family on his cell phone several times, and finally arranged for someone who had been let through to take his family’s belongings to them in Amman. At the end of the long day, the Jordanian authorities denied him entry, again without any explanation. Yasser knew the simple reason: “They do not like Syrians,” he says.
For 30 days, Yasser skirted the border, sometimes in a car, sometimes on foot, looking for some way to get through. He joined up with others who were also trying to get out of Syria. They passed town after town, every one destroyed and deserted, except for a few patrolling soldiers, some on the side of the regime, others rebel militia. Yasser snuck selfies on his phone, with the ruined cities as background to his own deterioration. If the military had seen him taking pictures, he knew, he would have been captured, imprisoned as a deserter, or sent to serve in the army. But he wanted to document his ordeal, to show himself getting thinner, shaggier, and dirtier, so when he was reunited with his family again, he could look back and remember everything he had gone through to get to them. That phone, though, was since lost. He pokes the hollows of his cheeks to show how starving he was. Farmers, he said, took pity on them and fed them apples and tomatoes from their fields.
Finally, they met a smuggler, a Syrian boy, only 16 years old, who agreed to take the group across the Jordan River. They tried twice and failed. One man in their group had an open wound in his stomach, where he had been shot three times on his last attempt. The smuggler led them across at night, in total darkness, without even the light of the moon to guide them. Yasser let the wounded man lean against his shoulder and helped him walk through the shallow water. Midway across, they looked up and saw Jordanian soldiers appear on the ridge. The border-crossers scattered. Yasser dashed into the brush and clambered up the hillside. He heard later that one man in their party had been caught and beaten the previous time he had tried to cross, before being sent back to Syria. The rest of his group reached Jordan unharmed. At the top of the hill, another smuggler met them and took them back to his home to shower, change, and wait for family or friends to pick them up and bring payment for the crossing. “They were honest people,” Yasser says of the two smugglers.
Because of this ordeal, Yasser says he understands the desperation that drives people from other parts of the world to break laws and risk their lives to flee poverty and persecution. “I empathize with the Mexican people,” he says. “They leave everything they have at home” to cross the border into America in search of a better life. All he could think about, he says, was getting back to his family. He was willing to endure any hardship, to take any risk, to be with them again.
Life in Jordan, though, was not easy. Yasser and his family were together again, but as Syrians they faced daily harassment and discrimination. Finding work was difficult. At first, without his paper work in order, Yasser had to work illegally, under an assumed name. Then, his father managed to rent a small fruit and vegetable shop, and Yasser helped him. That one job wasn’t enough to support the family. Yasser found another job in a clothing store. “I was working two jobs, 18 hours a day, just to make ends meet for my family,” he says. He had hoped to return to school and finish his accounting degree, but he couldn’t afford either the time or the tuition fees. To keep his skills up, Yasser did volunteer his bookkeeping services to some small businesses that needed assistance.
Every day at the clothing store, Yasser set up tables outside to display his store’s wares on the sidewalk. One night at 10:15pm, when the store’s owner was away, a policeman came by and asked whose stuff was out on the sidewalk. Yasser tried to explain that he was just an employee, that the shop wasn’t his. The policeman demanded to see his I.D. “As soon as he saw I was Syrian,” says Yasser. “He arrested me and took me to the police station.” Yasser had to beg the policeman to let him lock up the store before they left. As soon as his employer heard about the arrest, he hurried to the station to pay Yasser’s bail. He arrived at 10:30, just 15 minutes after Yasser had been hauled away. The police captain told him he had arrived too late at night for Yasser to be released. Instead, the police confiscated Yasser’s cell phone, handcuffed him, and shipped him to Marka Prison, Amman’s central jail. He was told he should go back to Syria, even though he had legal residency in Jordan. “My status was precarious because they could see I hadn’t entered the country through the airport,” Yasser explains. He was put in a cell with 35 other men, all of them immigrants – from Syria, Romania, Sudan, and other African countries, says Yasser – and all of them being held for some petty crime. “Putting clothes on the sidewalk wasn’t anything serious,” says Yasser. “But I was alone, and because I was Syrian, they put me in jail.” Yasser stayed in Marka Prison for five days. In the end, despite threats of high fines and possible deportation, all Yasser had to do was sign a statement saying he would never sell goods on the sidewalk again.
As a brief respite from the oppressive atmosphere of Amman, Yasser often returned to the rough mountainous countryside where he had first crossed over the border. One time, on a clear, windy day, he looked across the river to Syria, and when he felt the wind on his face, he imagined that breeze blowing from his homeland. He remembered too the difficulties he had gone through, first to get out of Syria, then to survive in Jordan. He knew he could never go back home. If he did, he would be arrested as a traitor. “They would torture me,” he says. “They would put me in prison.” Still, that day he felt “that strong nostalgia for home, just by being close enough to my country and feeling the breeze on my face.”
Last summer, the U.N.H.C.R. (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) had approached Yasser’s family about applying for refugee status to immigrate to the United States. Each family member was questioned extensively by the U.N., then questioned again by IOM (International Organization for Migration), and then questioned by U.S. Homeland Security. “Give us a compelling reason why you want to emigrate?” Yasser was asked. He remembers his answer: “I don’t want to participate in the civil war. I don’t want to be involved in fighting or the military. I could never go and kill somebody,” he said.
Not long after Yasser’s release from prison, he received happy news. The IOM contacted him on New Year’s Day to tell him that his application to immigrate to the United States had been approved. Yasser had just 15 days to get ready. The rest of his family had submitted a separate application and had to wait. Yasser worked for five more days, then left his job and spent a week being trained about American culture. Then he left Jordan behind and flew on an airplane, for the first time in his life.
Yasser arrived in Philadelphia on January 18, 2017, expecting his family would follow shortly thereafter. Two days later Donald Trump was inaugurated as president. One week later the new president signed an executive order banning travel to the United States from seven Muslim majority countries in Africa and the Middle East, including Syria.
Yasser meanwhile settled into life in an unfamiliar city. His English is limited, but his resourcefulness, openness, and optimism speak for him when words fail. The Nationalities Service Center (NSC), the organization sponsoring him and his family, set him up in a one-bedroom apartment in the Italian market, which he shares with another refugee, from Ethiopia, who is twice Yasser’s age. In his first week in the U.S., Yasser acquired his social security card and a state ID. Within two weeks, he had made friends with a young man his age from Iraq. He also found a job, cooking sharma in a Syrian restaurant in King of Prussia. Though his commute to work takes an hour each way on two buses, but he is thrilled to have found work so quickly.
He had high expectations for life in America, he says, and he hasn’t been disappointed. “America is my country now,” he says, in English. “I like this country. I like this city. You can see nice people. The people here make me so happy.” He already feels happier and freer than he ever did in Jordan. He looks forward to resuming his education and finishing his degree in business and accounting. “I want to speak to all Syrians in America,” he says through a translator. “Here you can have a chance. But you have to have dedication. I have a formula,” he adds. “Opportunity + hard work = success. America is a land of opportunity,” he says. And Yasser is more than willing to supply the hard work.
The day we meet, in early February, Yasser is brimming with optimism. He had just heard good news. The president’s travel ban had been lifted a few days before, and, a few minutes before, Yasser’s uncle had called to tell him his family had been cleared to come to the U.S. They would arrive in Philadelphia in one week.
Yasser sits down at the café table just as one of the two cell phones he carries– one for the U.S., one for Jordan – starts ringing. “It’s my family,” he says. He tilts his phone across the table. His father’s face is flickering on the tiny screen. His little brother pops in front of his dad, waving. He presses his face close to the glass, grinning and making faces at Yasser, as if by leaning close he can erase just a bit of the 6,000-mile distance that separates them.
“It’s a miracle.” Yasser says, hanging up the phone, his grin nearly as wide as his little brother’s. “Before I’m so sad. I was alone. Now I’m so happy… It’s been uncertain for three weeks. Home means family. The thought of being with my family fills me with so much joy and happiness.”
The day we met in early February, Yasser expected his family to arrive on February 14. On February 12, he learned that the permission his family had received to come to the United States had been cancelled. A month later, they had not yet arrived. On March 6, President Trump issued a revised executive order, banning travel from six countries, including Syria. That ban too was overturned by a Federal judge. Yasser is sad again. Yasser is still waiting.
Home means family. The thought of being with my family fills me with so much joy and happiness.