By Mara Klecker
Her father got the call at 4 in the morning. It was July 2012, and he was in his home in Latakia, Syria. On other end was a member of the Islamic State.
This was not the first foreboding phone call. Her father had been warned before. Earlier in the year, the militants had come to his village, had burned his home and the farms. They tried to lure her father to a public trial. They wanted to behead him in front of all the people who looked up to him as a village leader.
Even then, her father didn’t leave the predominantly Christian village. He loved his country. He was a proud man. He wanted to be the hero.
But the final phone call scared her father. The man on the other end had worked for him as a farmhand years before and felt he needed to give him notice of the approaching group of militants hoping to kill him.
“Please get out,” the voice said. “They are coming after you.”
So her father and her mother packed what they could, took just $3,000 in cash and left the village they’d called home.
Rula Jabbour’s voice was weighted with conviction as she recalled what happened to her father just a few years ago. In front of an audience of University of Nebraska-Lincoln students and faculty in early December, she leaned into the microphone to tell her story as part of a Great Plains National Security Education Consortium-sponsored panel discussion on the Syrian refugee crisis.
Jabbour told of how she came to UNL more than a decade ago for an education, how she’s now a doctoral student in Middle Eastern and security studies, how she wants to be treated equally as a woman, a refugee, a mother, a student. She told of the fear she had for her parents as she listened from afar to the news of rising violence in the place she called home.
She passed the microphone to the other panelists, too—to Abla Hasan, an assistant professor of practice who directs UNL’s Arabic Language and Culture program, to Abid Kassim and Hadi Pir, advocates for the community of Yazidis who fled religious persecution from ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Both Kassim and Pir worked as translators for the U.S. Army in Iraq. Kassim’s hometown was taken by ISIS in August, and his family is living in Kurdistan, waiting to follow him to the U.S. Pir told of the AK-47 and four magazines he carried with him in case he was ever captured by ISIS. Before he’d let them behead him in front of his family, he said, he said he would have raised the gun to his own head and pulled the trigger.
The panel moderator on this December night in a quiet room in Lincoln, Nebraska, was Patrice McMahon, an associate professor of political science at UNL. She began by giving context to a frightening reality on the other side of the globe. The reality—the crisis—that isn’t so far away. Lincoln is a refugee resettlement community. The city hosts the largest community of Yazidi people outside of the Middle East. This crisis is not one we can ignore, she said and then presented the data: One out of every 122 people in the world is a refugee—either internally displaced or seeking asylum. Syria has the most refugees of any country—more than 22 million. More than half of Syrians are on the move.
Each of the panelists repeated the message that it’s not easy to come to the United States as a refugee. They discussed the frustration of hearing the rhetoric of certain politicians who balk at accepting Middle Eastern refugees in the wake of recent attacks by people who pledged allegiance to ISIS.
Hasan came to the U.S. in 2007 as part of the Fulbright Scholar Program. She’d originally planned to return to Syria, but after realizing the dangers of doing so, she began applying for asylum. Now with a husband and three children—two of whom were born in the U.S.—she said permanent residency is crucial to her family’s safety. She’s been working toward it for years, but without the money for a lawyer, her case has seemed to have gotten stuck in the system, she said.
“I’m don’t have a happy ending yet,” she said. “I’m hoping for one. For people who think (refugees) can just flow into the country easy, it’s not like that. It’s bad news for people like us, trying to find a new home.”
But a new home can’t just be found, Jabbour said. Not for her father at least. He’s 60 now and he cycles through periods of deep depression, she said. For the first few years after he arrived in the U.S., he couldn’t even buy vegetables to cook. Like many refugees, she said, he had no financial help, no health insurance, no way to buy enough groceries without financial help from her and her husband.
“It’s not like this was his choice,” Jabbour said. “It’s not only hard to get here, it’s hard to survive here.”
Each of the panelists said this isn’t for the lack of agencies in Lincoln. It’s a welcoming community, they said. The organizations that help are wonderful.
But there’s nothing any service could do to ease the pain of leaving home, Jabbour said.
It’s hard to have hope sometimes, Jabbour and Hasan said.
“The hardest is losing part of your identity while still alive,” Hasan said. “Of course you still have hope for the future but losing your country, you give up your own memories.” Hasan always thought she’d go back to Syria so she didn’t bring her personal belongings. Not even her wedding photos. Now, she said, she wonders if she’ll ever be able to go retrieve them. “They weren’t even great photos,” she said, her words trailing off into a wistful chuckle.
Jabbour talked about hope, too. About her hopes for the end of the civil war in her country, about the hope that Americans and politicians don’t turn their back on desperate refugees (which may drive them to join ISIS for lack of other options), about her hope for the world to see her family not as a refugee family, but a strong one.
But there’s one hope that makes her voice rise with emotion.
“I hope for my father that he doesn’t have to die here,” she said, leaning into the microphone. “I hope he can see Syria one more time.”