A war zone is no place to raise a family.
And while Bassam Alhamdan may have tried to keep his family’s life intact in Daraa, Syria, well after civil war had broken out in the country, the danger became too great under Islamic State group control.
He made the decision to flee Syria with his wife and six children, and headed for a refugee camp across the southern border into Jordan.
That was in 2012.
“He wanted to save his family, so this was maybe the only way to get out,” said Feres Alshammari, an Iraqi refugee himself who now works with refugees through Southwest Youth and Family Services in West Seattle. Alshammari translated for Alhamdan during an interview with seattlepi.com.
Alhamdan and his family were among millions who left their homes as Syria was ravaged by war. After a long and often arduous process, they were offered resettlement to the U.S. and moved in December 2015 to West Seattle, where they live in a four-bedroom apartment.
As one of the first Syrian families to arrive in the U.S. as refugees, adjusting to a new life -- thousands of miles from home and the rest of their family -- hasn’t been easy. But it’s easier than the life they left behind, and certainly easier than the efforts they went through to get here.
Since civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, an estimated 4.8 million Syrians have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, according to United Nations figures. Another 6.6 million have been displaced inside Syria’s borders. More than 470,000 people had been killed by February 2016, according to UN estimates.
Alhamdan and his family traveled to the Zaatari refugee camp across the Jordanian border, near the city of Al-Mafraq, when their home became too dangerous to remain. The camp is home to about 80,000 refugees today, but when Alhamdan arrived with his family, the number was likely closer to 160,000.
For seven months, the family of eight shared a tent in the desert camp, battered by winds carrying dust that made Alhamdan’s children sick and eventually contributed to asthma in several of them.
“He feared he would lose them,” Alshammari said.
Days in the camp were spent talking, as there was little else to do. They were not allowed to leave, so there they stayed, waiting.
But what Alhamdan needed to do was get his family signed up for resettlement with the UN, an application process that was so backlogged in the camp that an opportunity to apply never came.
When a chance to escape arrived, Alhamdan paid off a driver to sneak him and his family out of the camp.
Once again they fled, this time with the risk of being bused back to the Jordan-Syria border and dropped off if they were caught. But they made it to Irbid, Jordan and quickly applied for resettlement there.
With the application filed, Alhamdan and his family were safe from deportation, but again they had to wait.
Once you get UN refugee status, “you do nothing,” Alhamdan said through the translator. “You just wait and pray that someone will call you.”
The family eventually got the call, then went through four interview processes over the course of the next year and a half, each time traveling 160 kilometers (100 miles) round-trip to Amman, the capital of Jordan.
Everyone in the family had to be interviewed each time, from Alhamdan’s youngest, Ahmad -- then 5 years old -- to he and his wife.
At the end of it all, the family went through a health check and a three-day culture class on America before they were given travel dates.
Their flight -- from Amman, Jordan to Cairo, Egypt to New York to Seattle -- was the first time any of them had been on a plane.
Arriving in Seattle, they had nothing but the few belongings they had brought with them. But the Seattle branch of World Relief helped Alhamdan and his family get into a subsidized apartment and start to settle into their new life.
The children got enrolled in school -- most of them for the first time in three years -- and Alhamdan’s wife, Rabah Saleh, took a job as a custodian at a nearby school.
Alhamdan said it’s been tough to adjust to life here, especially with the language barrier, but the community welcomed his family with open arms.
After President Donald Trump issued his executive order temporarily banning travel from seven predominantly Muslim nations and halting U.S. refugee entrance, Alhamdan and his family got nervous.
“He’s really afraid someone will knock on the door and say, ‘This is not your place. You have no place here,’” Alshammari said of Alhamdan.
But after seeing protests and opposition in Seattle, he felt a bit of relief.
“Now I can breathe, maybe,” Alhamdan said.
Even so, Alhamdan and his family miss the rest of their family back in Syria. They have intermittent contact with some, but others have fallen victim to the continued fighting there.
Two of Saleh’s uncles and her brother-in-law have been killed since she and Alhamdan brought their family to Seattle. They worry for others.
And even as they have a place to live now, the subsidized housing will end in another 10 months, and with only Saleh and one son working part-time (and Saleh currently laid up with back issues), paying for a place large enough for them all to live will be a major struggle.
The thought of returning to Syria has crossed Alhamdan’s mind, but even with the hurdles of adjusting to life in a foreign land, his home could still be very dangerous.
“This is the challenge, what you will find over there,” he said.
Genna Martin also contributed to this report.
Daniel DeMay covers Seattle culture, business and transportation for seattlepi.com. He can be reached at 206-448-8362 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @Daniel_DeMay.
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