Malek Hamad cried the entire first leg of his journey to Utah.
Malek, 39, was leaving one of the most war-torn places on earth: Syria, where he had seen countless men, women and children killed, where he had risked his own life to carry food to civilians in a city under siege, and where a seemingly endless war was still raging. The life his family built over generations in Tafas, Syria, in the devastated Dara’a area, had been reduced to rubble, parents and siblings scattered and their family home set on fire.
The sobbing of Malek’s three young sons as he’d held them while bombs rained down on their town echoed in his mind as he sat with them and his wife, Baraa Huraideen, 29, on the first airplane any of them had ever boarded, bound for the United States.
Yet Malek didn’t feel relief. He was devastated to leave his parents, whom he’d lived with his entire life and supported for 14 years. But as a refugee in Jordan, he was informed that his children would no longer be allowed to enroll in school, and the U.N. had offered him the chance to resettle in the United States.
Torn between his parents and his children, Malek made an agonizing decision.
“The moment we separated, it was like someone died,” he said in Arabic through an interpreter. “(My parents) were really crying and couldn’t say much. The last thing we did was ask each other for forgiveness.”
“It was an excruciating flight,” Malek said. By the time they landed in Salt Lake City four flights and two days later, he and Baraa were in a daze, lost for words and feelings.
They weren’t prepared for the welcome that awaited them.
They expected to see Baraa’s cousin, Mohammad Hredeen, and his wife Rasha, who had been living in Salt Lake City for a year. But they didn’t expect to exit security into a crowd of cheers and homemade signs.
A young girl with blonde hair and a giant white bow held one that said “Welcome to America.” More than 20 people, most of them strangers and many of them children, crowded around as Mohammad, smiling broadly, kissed Malek on the cheek and wrapped him in a tight hug. Baraa shook Mohammad’s hand, took the little blonde girl’s face in her hand and kissed it, then hugged each of the American women in turn.
“We’re lucky, not like most refugees. We had family here, and … then we saw there was a lot of interest and care from (other families), the agencies and the government,” Malek said. In addition to the Hredeens, caseworkers and volunteers from Catholic Community Services came out to welcome the new arrivals — including four Utah families trained and assigned to help them find their footing in a new country.
Malek and Mohammad lugged 10 hulking black bags from baggage claim, filled with some clothes and possessions but mainly presents and Middle Eastern sweets for friends and family in the U.S. Baraa stood with her hands on her sons’ shoulders, her quick, dark eyes watching the commotion, looking poised and taking it all in.
It was May 25. The Hamads were among the last Syrian refugees to come to the U.S. before President Donald Trump suspended the refugee resettlement program through an executive order earlier this year. Of the record 22.5 million refugees worldwide, more than a fifth are fleeing Syria’s civil war, according to the U.N. The United States was set to accept 110,000 refugees in 2017, but just 28,000 refugees have been resettled since the beginning of the year, according to State Department data, and the Trump administration has promised to keep numbers low.
Utah normally resettles 1,200 refugees each year. This year, the state is on track to resettle half that number, said Danielle Stamos, public relations director at Catholic Community Services, one of two refugee resettlement agencies in Utah. Those who do arrive are often grieving, and while some have mixed feelings about their new home, they are also anxious for a new beginning. Most hope to start their own businesses, Stamos said.
In Syria, Malek had worked in construction and owned a tile factory. Now he was embarking on his biggest construction project yet: building a new life in an unfamiliar country with only the $500 in his pocket, a few possessions crammed into black canvas bags and a few months of financial assistance from Catholic Community Services and the U.S. government.
It’s late May, and Malek knows he has four months of rent and other assistance plus a year of health insurance before he needs to become self-sufficient. He also has four months to begin paying back the travel loan from the International Organization for Migration that got him here. He doesn’t speak the language, knows only a handful of people and has a family to provide for. But he’s optimistic. He has no choice.
A fresh start
The first two weeks are a blur of appointments — registering for Social Security cards, a visit to the Department of Workforce Services, a checkup at the doctor to vaccinate the boys for school, and an intake process at Catholic Community Services that includes everything from an explanation of Medicaid and food stamps to how to buckle children into car seats.
The Hamads are an affectionate family of five with an easy rapport. As they wait at a counter for their Social Security applications to be processed, Baraa teases Eslam, 6, the youngest of the three boys, and Malek tousles the hair of Fahed, 10, and Abdullah, 9. Malek and the boys could be mistaken for middle class Americans in their jeans and sneakers. They're all still jet-lagged, but there’s also energy and anticipation about making a fresh start.
Khalid Al Hachami, 39, their Catholic Community Services case manager, is with the Hamads almost nonstop for the first few days. A former translator for the U.S. military, Al Hachami is a soft-spoken Iraqi with a few gray hairs, a wide smile and firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to be a refugee. He drives them to appointments, explains how to get around and translates for them everywhere they go.
Utah is one of the most welcoming states for refugees, Stamos says.
“The (governor and) the LDS Church are supportive and created this culture and environment in Utah where we can be so successful in resettling refugees,” she said. “We are known for resettling the most severe cases — a lot of injuries from war, single moms, large families. … We have a great infrastructure of volunteers and community support.”
Not all refugees are the same, Stamos says. “Syrians are very educated, and they advocate for themselves.” Baraa, for example, is choosy about where the family lives, turning down the first apartment found for them because it’s too far from their cousins, and because they’ve heard good things about Lincoln Elementary School and want to live in that area.
The Hamads live with their cousins the Hredeens in Millcreek for the first couple of weeks — 12 people in a three-bedroom apartment with seven beds — until they sign a lease on their own two-bedroom in South Salt Lake. They move in June, and the LDS Church donates new beds while Catholic Community Services gives them a couch passed down from other refugee families.
The boys try to play outside with other kids, but they struggle without English. Plus, the monthlong Muslim holiday of Ramadan started two days after they arrived, and all but 5-year-old Eslam are fasting from food and water from sunup to sundown — which in Utah in June can be after 9 p.m. — so they don’t feel like spending time in the desert sun.
But with Ramadan also comes familiar rituals. Malek and Baraa invite some of their new American friends to share one of their nightly iftar dinners, and it eases the ache of remembering Ramadan with family in Syria.
“Ramadan back home is better,” Malek says through a translator, because people were closer and there was a culture of visiting and eating with friends and neighbors throughout the month. He grew up in Tafas, a small agricultural town less than 20 miles from northern Israel, in a middle-class family where, like the majority of Syrians, he practiced as a Sunni Muslim in a Shiite-controlled country.
The Syrian civil war began just 6 miles away in Dara’a when, in 2011, the government arrested several teenagers and then shot protesters demanding their release, setting off a cycle of funeral processions and demonstrations that spiraled into bloodier and bloodier confrontations.
“I can’t even count the number of people I know who are from my town who died in those demonstrations,” Malek says. At one point, government forces surrounded Dara’a with tanks, and Malek was part of a group carrying food and supplies on foot to the besieged city when soldiers started shooting directly at them, killing men, women and children.
He never considered joining the fighting, he said. “I hate weapons and I hate wars. I’m against the idea of carrying weapons against your fellow countrymen,” he said.
Over the next two years, regime soldiers often came into town and burned homes at random, sometimes with people inside. Malek and his family were away the day government forces came through and torched the first floor of the home his father built, where they all lived together.
Not long after, Malek remembers an evening spent crouching in the basement and counting shells falling on the street every five seconds. “There was a lot of crying, a lot of saying last prayers and confessions. We all felt we would die,” he said. “The children cried so much that they collapsed and fell asleep, until one big shell fell and the main door to the house exploded inward.”
That shelling lasted from 4 to 10 p.m., and when it stopped, Malek told his father he couldn’t stay in Tafas anymore. He took his family to the nearby town of Muzayrib, where they stayed for two months until their savings ran out. In January 2013, they decided to flee to Jordan in search of work.
Baraa said she and the boys spent two miserable weeks in a tent in the Zaatari refugee camp, a sprawling grid of makeshift homes for 80,000 Syrian refugees in the barren Jordanian desert, while Malek tied up loose ends in Syria. Eventually, they reunited in Umm Qais, an ancient Jordanian town overlooking the Sea of Galilee, where they lived with Malek’s family — 28 people in a four-bedroom house — and Malek started earning money installing tile.
Jordan hosts more than 700,000 refugees, mainly from Syria, and most live below the poverty line either in camps or neighborhoods. The U.N. identifies some of the most vulnerable for resettlement, and when they approached Malek’s father about going to the United States, he said he would only go if Malek and his family could go with him.
It took three years for the family to be vetted and cleared, and by that time Malek’s father decided he was too old to emigrate and would rather stay in Jordan where he spoke the language and understood the culture. In the meantime, the resettlement process had scattered Malek’s family around the world, with one brother now living in Germany, a sister sent to Canada and another brother back in Syria because his wife couldn’t handle living away from her family, he said.
Twice Malek had a date set with the U.N. to bring his family to the U.S., and twice he backed out, worried about abandoning his father, 70, and his mother, 59. When he finally, tearfully, boarded the plane at the end of May, he left $1,500 with his parents, promising to send more as soon as he could.
During his first few weeks in the U.S., Malek often wondered whether he’d made the wrong decision.
“Some longings (for home and family) will never leave you,” he said.
Tucked away in a corner of Granite Park Junior High School in South Salt Lake, the Tumaini Welcome & Transition Center teems with the colorful clothing of refugee kids from all over the world. For some, it’s their first time in a classroom. For most, it’s their first time learning to open a locker, use a computer, recite the Pledge of Allegiance and pick up some basics of communication in English before they’re thrown into the new environment of an American school.
In late August, Fahed, Abdullah and Eslam walk through the doors of Tumaini. It’s their first step in fulfilling the dream their parents had in bringing them to the U.S. Had they stayed in Jordan, the boys would no longer be in school. Certain identification documents, called a “family book,” were destroyed when their house was set on fire in Syria. Without the family book, they couldn’t obtain an official Jordanian ID, which effectively barred them not only from enrolling in school, but also accessing medical care.
Near the end of their time in Jordan, middle son Abdullah broke his elbow playing soccer and Malek took him to the hospital, where he was refused service because he didn’t have the right type of ID.
“I pleaded with them, and eventually they agreed to fix the arm, but they said next time something happens, we won’t help you,” Malek said. That, combined with the fact that the boys couldn’t move on to the next grade in school, decided things for Malek: He would have to accept the U.N.’s offer and take the boys to America. Otherwise, “they were going to be stuck,” he said.
“Refugee parents go into this knowing they are sacrificing their own lives,” Stamos says. “They know they aren’t going to go on and be some success, but their children might.”
Fahed, now 11, is in sixth grade. He wants to be a teacher and likes to draw and paint. “He is a good boy,” Malek says — well liked, studies hard and has strong character.
Abdullah, 9, is a fifth-grader. He’s a little more nervous. He suffers the most from memories of bombs falling in Syria and still has nightmares. He wants to be a policeman, Malek says, so he can protect others from the kind of trauma he’s been through.
Eslam, 6, is in first grade. He’s very smart, but he can also be a little naughty, his dad says. He’s already talking about becoming a businessman.
Tumaini doesn’t give the boys a rigorous education, Malek says. “They like it because it’s just playing, no homework,” he says. But he also knows they gained confidence and survival skills ahead of their debut into a mainstream school.
Two weeks later, in early September, Baraa wakes up early to walk the boys to their first day at Lincoln Elementary School, also in Granite School District, about a half-mile from their South Salt Lake apartment. The boys wave to North African friends from Tumaini as they approach the building.
They’re greeted by Principal Milton Collins, a larger-than-life personality who performs his signature bobcat (Lincoln’s mascot) growl for them. He makes sure every kid has a backpack, informs them that high-fives are mandatory whenever they see him in the hall and tells them to go straight to an adult if they experience bullying of any kind.
Around 70 percent of Utah’s refugee children are in Granite School District, said Jadee Talbot, associate director of community centers for the district. Lincoln Elementary alone counts students from 15 countries, according to Collins, the principal, and has three full-time English as a second language teachers. The school grounds are home to a number of resources for refugee families, including a community center offering classes for parents and a donation sharehouse where they can get food and other supplies.
Baraa walks with Eslam to his classroom, taking smartphone photos of the cafeteria and kids lining up in the hallway. Eslam finds a seat on the floor with his new classmates, beams and waves at his mom, and his American education begins.
Free to worship
Malek visited the Khadeeja Islamic Center in West Valley City three times during his first few weeks in America. He took his sons there to pray on Eid al-Fitr, the feast celebrating the end of Ramadan, which fell on June 25 this year. As he knelt next to other Muslim men and listened to the sermon, tears trickled down his cheeks.
“I used to go to the mosque every day during Ramadan (in Syria),” he said. “My dad was always by my side and we prayed together. But I turned my head and there was nobody from my family praying with me. I missed them.”
Three months later, in September, he’s celebrating another Eid — Eid al-Adha, the feast of sacrifice — at another mosque, the Muslim Community Center in Cottonwood Heights.
“The ultimate reason of this feast is the concept of sacrifice,” Imam Sheikh Ali Yussuf says from the pulpit. “The Muslim should try to sacrifice his time, his effort, his energy, his words, and even his own personal life for the love of Allah.”
Malek and his sons kneel with the other men in a large room facing the imam, while Baraa kneels near a room for women at the back, peering into the hall to check on her sons.
“To sacrifice is to give where you live,” the imam continues. “Sacrifice reminds the Muslims of the prophet Abraham of Islam, who sacrificed his own beloved son.” He begins speaking in Arabic, his voice rising into a prayer that is part song, part sermon, culminating in a conclusive “As-Salaam-Alaikum” as he starts greeting and hugging men in the congregation almost before he finishes speaking.
After the prayers, people linger over Banbury Cross donuts and coffee. Some women wear hijabs while others are bareheaded. Several kids play a game of tag in the parking lot. Baraa stands alone, poised and watchful, as Malek smiles and laughs with Yussuf, the imam, who is also an instructor at Tumaini.
Out of a congregation of 250 at the Muslim Community Center, about half are refugees, according to Imam Yussuf. Malek heard about it from friends not in Utah, but in Syria, where his network of friends and family remains deeply important, even across the oceans. His nephew, Mohammad’s son Yaman, 14, is using his smartphone to film the event for his grandfather in Syria.
“As a Muslim, religion is my life,” Malek says. “One of the most beautiful things about coming to America was the idea that I could practice my religion as I want without any constraints and without any fear.”
As a Sunni Muslim in Shiite-controlled Syria, Malek says, there were often restrictions on his religious practice. During his mandatory period of military service, he wasn’t allowed to participate in daily Muslim prayers at all because the Syrian government is officially secular. In America, however, there are no restrictions. “That was something I looked forward to,” Malek said.
The most important parts of the Hamads’ religious practice are prayer and fasting, Malek says. They also rely on the Quran to help them through the lonely parts of their transition to the U.S., pulling up YouTube videos of professional readings of the Quran and listening as a family when life feels difficult or sad.
After saying goodbye to their friends at the Muslim Community Center, Malek and Baraa gather the boys and pile into their new car, a silver Toyota Corolla, with Malek at the wheel. He found a job installing tile, and he was riding his bike an hour each way to meet up with co-workers until a friend sold him the car for a down payment of $1,000 and a flexible repayment schedule. The car is an important turning point in their new life, giving them the freedom to go to the store or the mosque or on family outings whenever they want. It’s the beginning of their independence.
On their own
Malek is picking up English through his job, and the boys are learning it in school, but life can be lonely for Baraa, who used to be surrounded by other women but now spends a significant amount of time home alone. She likes the American volunteers, and they laugh as they try to communicate through hand signals and smartphone translations, but without English, Baraa can’t share all of her thoughts and feelings. She has some Arabic-speaking friends in the U.S., but not many, and she doesn’t get to see them every day.
At the family’s initial health screening, Baraa told the doctor she felt depressed, a common condition among refugees during their first few months, when they can feel the most isolated. She recently started meeting with a therapist, but can’t say yet if it’s helping. “We are at the beginning,” she says in Arabic through an interpreter.
As the months passed she learned that she was pregnant with their fourth child, due in June, and she’s excited but nervous about having a baby in a new country without her mother or Malek’s mother to help.
Abdullah, the middle son, also struggles. Though he’s safe now, he’s still haunted by the devastation he saw in Syria and has trouble sleeping unless his big brother lays down next to him.
Before coming to America, Malek and Baraa never had a home of their own, sharing a house with Malek’s parents until they left Jordan. They’re now adjusting, not just to a new country, but also to living on their own for the first time. They talk to their parents daily using FaceTime, and have regular contact with siblings in Germany, Syria and Canada. But in spite of missing their family members, they’re also finding new freedoms.
When they lived with extended family, for example, Baraa wore her headscarf not just in public but also at home because she lived with men she wasn’t related to by blood. But now, Malek says, “My wife is free in what she wears and does, also my kids, because my parents controlled everything. My older brother would tell the kids where they could and couldn’t sit. Now we have more freedom, especially for the kids.”
Little by little, they’re making new friends.
There’s Al Hachami from Catholic Community Services, who translates for them, helps them read their mail, and is only a phone call away when cousins Mohammad and Rasha are busy with their own jobs and children. “We feel like he’s part of the family,” Malek says.
There are people like Danjuma Alcala, the refugee family specialist for Granite School District, who promises to come play chess with oldest son Fahed (“He’ll probably win,” Alcala says).
There are the Catholic Community Services volunteers — Jamie Cook, Lisa Lovell Lindsay Toone — who brought their families to meet the Hamads at the airport and now take Baraa to the grocery store and Liberty Park and invite the family out to dinner.
And the family gets together with two or three other Syrian families every weekend (about 200 Syrian refugees live in Utah), eating and dancing and throwing surprise birthday parties.
Malek is the outgoing one. “I’m friends with everybody,” he says. Baraa is more choosy. She also likes to have friends, but within limits, she says, because of the drama and problems they can bring.
'Give where you live'
It’s a cold Tuesday evening in mid-December, and Malek comes home from work exhausted.
He goes straight into the shower, then sits down to dinner with Baraa and the three boys, but after a day of manual labor, all he really wants to do is sleep.
“We’re the kind of people that if we have work, we can survive,” Malek says. It was work that drove his family from Syria to Jordan, but since Jordan doesn’t grant work permits to refugees, Malek and his brothers worked under the table, always knowing they could be fined or deported back to Syria if they were caught.
Once he got a Social Security card in the U.S., Malek quickly found a job installing tile — the same thing he did in Syria — but it lasted only two months because he couldn’t get enough hours, and the assistance from Catholic Community Services was running out.
“I couldn’t pay all the bills and my rent,” he says. “I realized I needed to get another job. It doesn’t matter if it’s not tiling. … I have a big family.”
Now Malek works at a glass factory in West Valley City carrying giant sheets of glass one by one to put into window frames. He makes $14 an hour, which translates to about 35 cents for each sheet of glass he carries across the room. It’s slow going, especially since their rent in South Salt Lake is nearly $1,000 a month, but he has plenty of hours and makes extra for overtime. He’s planning to finally start paying back the travel loan from the International Organization for Migration this month.
Malek works with his cousin-in-law Mohammad and another Syrian friend, and they carpool to work. If his cousin-in-law drives, they listen to Arabic music; if their other friend drives, it’s American music; and if Malek drives it’s the Quran.
Malek and his cousin still want to start their own tile business, but “without English, we can’t do business, we can’t do anything,” Malek says. He’s happy with the window job for now because he can work all day and has the option to go to language lessons at night.
“I’m giving myself six months to improve my English by 50 percent,” he says. “Then I’ll move to a better job, or maybe start my own business.”
Nearly seven months into his new American life, Malek doesn’t regret his painful decision to come to the U.S. “When I talk with my wife, we say, coming here is worth it. It’s a better future for our kids.”11 comments on this story
He imagines returning to Syria one day, but the civil war there is still raging, fueled by weapons and money from world powers including Russia, Iran, the U.S. and Turkey. Malek still gets reports about friends killed in recent attacks. But wherever he lives, he hopes his sons’ education will give them the chance to help other people — to "give where they live," as Imam Yussuf said in his sermon.
“If they succeed, they’ll serve their country here, and if we leave for their mother country, they’ll utilize their skill there," Malek says.
"Here or there, they will serve the countries where they live.”