Joana Allamani is a second-year MA student in the Energy, Resources and Environment program.

The wealth of diversity of southeastern Michigan is what I have loved most about the Midwestern state ever since my family made it our second home. Polish, Lebanese, Albanian, Chaldean, Greek, and many other cultural influences enrich all aspects of our lives, especially gastronomy, the way to one’s heart. It is a blessing, because if we interact with individuals whose backgrounds differ from ours, we start to understand the irrationality of fearing others just because they are others. 

I was reminded of this enriching aspect of life in America as I was sitting in Samir Alrachan’s living room in Hamtramck, Michigan, enjoying a delicious dinner his wife had prepared, and hearing their story.

Samir is one of 170 Syrian refugees who have made it to southeastern Michigan. I was welcomed in his home through the Syrian American Rescue Network (SARN), a non-profit created to “provide humanitarian and economic support to refugees as they reach self-sufficiency in Michigan.” 

For some of SARN’s volunteers of Syrian heritage, they are far too familiar with what it means to escape a totalitarian regime. In February 1982, it was Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, who gave orders for the Hama Massacre, a tragedy that claimed the lives of anywhere between 10,000 and 40,000 individuals, depending on the source. 

SARN helps refugees with finding and furnishing homes, English classes, volunteer translators for doctor’s visits, car rides and setting up each family with mentors in order to help them navigate life in their new country. 

The level of organization is remarkable, and I could see the impact of SARN’s hard work on the faces of Samir and Tahir, the two gentlemen who shared their stories that day. 

When asked about being in good spirits, Samir said, “Is there any way you can hide from the sun? Why wouldn’t we be happy? When we came here we were finally being treated as human beings again.” 

And Tahir said, “This is truly the country of human rights, of humanity. We have only been treated nice, even though we are just refugees. They don’t have to impress us.”

“Just refugees.” Simple, potent, and revealing of the psychological toll of being treated as just a legal definition. They fled a war-torn country without knowing if they could ever return to their homes, only for their experience to become a political talking point. But they are not “just refugees.” 

In Syria, Samir owned a carpentry business and was a furniture designer. He has a college degree in manufacturing and went back to university for a second degree in Arabic literature. Tahir was in interior renovation, and he even showed us pictures of his work in Syria and Jordan. These men took pride in their work and were looking forward to giving back to the community that took them in. 

Daraa, their hometown, is the birthplace of the Syrian uprising. As the country’s southernmost city it is situated just a few kilometers away from the border with Jordan. They decided to leave Syria when the government began to raid homes and began a bombing campaign. 

Samir’s home was raided three times. He and his family left in July 2012, at a time when there was no talk of ISIS. They were fleeing from terror brought on by government forces, Iran and Hezbollah. 

The journey to the other side of the border lasted about two days, not due to distance, but because they had to flee without being noticed. He spoke of a number of safe houses along a buffer zone between Jordan and Syria where people on this journey would stay at specific times in order to cross to safety. 

Both Samir and Tahir said that they appreciated the help from Jordan, but staying there as a refugee, in Zaatari, the refugee camp that grew to become Jordan’s fourth largest city, was no way to live. Legally, they were not allowed to work. In order to earn anything, they would work for very little and under the constant threat of being reported to the authorities and “repelled” to a buffer zone between Jordan and Syria. Being repelled meant being sent back to a possible death sentence, because neither the government nor ISIS view favorably those who ran away. 

Tahir’s main memories from Zaatari were a lack of electricity, a lot of dust, and two meals a day at 10 and 3 o’clock. He tried putting on a strong face for his five children, but leaving refugee camp life is the reason he feels a sense of relief today. 

For both of their families, the process of being cleared as a refugee in America lasted about a year and a half. Samir said that for the first three interviews, they had no idea which country would admit them. Norway? Canada? Sweden?

Thankfully, they ended up in Michigan, where they have already started contributing to and inspiring those who have had the pleasure to get to know them. 

PHOTO CREDIT: "Detroit Skyline" by Mike Fritcher is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0