Two gunshots fired in Syria have separated a young family across two continents.
Mohammad, 16, sat down on a mat next to me in his Amman home and pointed at his left leg. “This is where the bullet entered, and this is where it exited,” he said.
Mohammad lives with his father, Madian, 44, and his four sisters in a small two-room flat in the Jabal AlHussein district of Amman, Jordan. He has not seen his mother or younger brother, Muhannad, in almost two years, and has never met his youngest sibling, Abdulrahman.
The family’s journey away from home and apart from each other began three years ago, when Mohammad and Muhannad were injured by arbitrary gunfire in the Damascus suburbs. The two were on their way home when security forces began to shoot at protesters, killing at least ten and injuring many more, including passersby like the two brothers.
Madian found his sons in a crowded field hospital, where many of the injured were receiving treatment for fear of being persecuted by security forces if they went to the local hospital. Muhammad had been shot once in the leg. Muhannad, then five, had been shot in the knee.
“We flipped him over and saw that the back of his leg was bleeding; there were three exit points for the bullet, as if it had exploded inside his leg,” said Madian. “I couldn’t believe that my children had been shot. I was in shock.”
Madian took his sons to a private hospital in Damascus, but Muhannad’s injury was severe. The bullet had permanently damaged the peroneal nerve, causing a condition known as foot drop, which impaired his ability to raise his foot and walk. A family member in the U.S. was able to secure a medical visa for Muhannad and his mother, Thuria.
Over the next few months, the family was displaced several times within Syria, evading constant shelling in their neighborhood. Muhannad and Thuria went to America for three months, but returned to Syria in January 2013. As the siege on the Damascus suburb of Al Ghouta steadily worsened, Madian decided to request passports for his children.
Due to an identity mix-up, Madian was detained by regime forces and held for a month in a political security prison. Upon his release, he decided to move again, this time outside of Syria altogether.
“My late mother told me to leave and take my children, but she refused to come with us,” Madian said. “She thought we would come back soon; she loved her country. She would tell us, exile is anguish.”
The family headed to Amman in May 2013, renting a flat from a Syrian landlord they had known from before. Madian, formerly a government employee in the agricultural sector, began to work illegally as a construction laborer in urban Amman.
“The work lasts about 12 hours a day, but it’s irregular,” he said. It’s never more than 20 days a month, and he only makes 17 Jordanian Dinars (JD) a day, two of which are spent on transportation. “But they (employers) look for Syrians, because it’s cheaper for them,” Madian said.
Obtaining work permits in Jordan is an expensive and lengthy process, which drives many Syrian refugees like Madian to work illegally, risking being sent to refugee camps, or even deported back to Syria. According to UNHCR, only 1% of refugee households in Jordan have members with work permits.
“Maybe 600 JD? I don’t have that kind of money in the first place,” Madian said, recalling that he’d been chased by authorities three times already.
In October 2013, Thuria, this time pregnant, decided to return to America with Muhannad, in hopes of finding further treatment for his injury. However, they were told that he could not have the necessary operation done until he turns 12. Muhannad, now 8 years old, has not seen his father or siblings in two years. Abdulrahman, born in the U.S., is almost two-years-old, and has never even met them. Thuria has applied for asylum in Boston but has not yet received a trial date.
“It keeps getting pushed,” said Madian. “We were told end of last year, and then again we were told in September. But here we are and still- nothing. Our friends who left for Germany after (she) went to America have already successfully reunited with their families. We feel like America is making obstacles for refugees, like it has no empathy for them.”
If Thuria’s application for asylum is successful, she can then apply for reunification with her family. Last week, President Obama announced that the U.S. would admit at least 10,000 displaced Syrians in the next year, an increase from the 1,500 it has taken so far since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. The announcement came as waves of refugees crossed the Mediterranean and the Balkans on towards Western Europe, where Germany alone has already announced its commitment to take in 500,000 refugees per year.
While the refugee resettlement process to the U.S. via U.N. referrals is a complicated and lengthy one that often takes up to two years, the asylum process for people like Thuria and her children who are already legally in the U.S. is different, but no less difficult.
“It’s just bureaucracy,” said Muna Jondy, a Syrian American immigration attorney based in Michigan. “When you apply for asylum, you get put in a queue along with everyone else from Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba, etc.”
Jondy said that even after applicants receive asylum status, it could still take at least a year to get reunified with their families. Intense security clearance procedures slow the process down, as does underemployment within the agencies handling asylum applications. Thuria’s case is one of 1,582 asylum cases filed by Syrians in the U.S. during fiscal year of 2014.
“It’s very frustrating for people. The U.S. is being unnecessarily difficult considering the number of applicants they’ve had. There is really no reason for the refugee numbers to be so little – same with the asylum applicants – the numbers are not overwhelming,” Jondy said.Lujayn, 5, laughs as her father, Madian tells her, “Tell her she can’t take a photo unless she takes you with her to America to see Mama!”
In Amman, Thuria’s family is still hoping she will receive her trial date soon.
“It’s our only hope,” Madian said. “If she were still here, I would have sent Muhammad to Europe, but I don’t want to scatter the family further.”
Muhammad and his three younger sisters go to school here in Amman, where they often face racist remarks by students and teachers alike.
“You’re Syrian? It’s like your cursed,” Muhammad said. He is the only Syrian left in his school, after others dropped out. “But I stayed, because I’m still hoping to go to America and I need to study,” Muhammad said.
The family’s struggle to make ends meet in Amman has intensified with the recent cuts in the UN World Food Program’s (WFP) services, which have left urban Syrian refugees without food vouchers starting this September. The organization’s regional refugee operation is said to be 81% underfunded. Out of the estimated 1.4 million Syrian refugees currently in Jordan, the 80% living outside of the camps, like Madian’s family, have been hit the hardest by assistance cuts.
After school, Muhammad works until 8pm everyday at a sewing shop to support his family, as well as on weekends. He used to take guitar lessons, but stopped after he started working. However, he’s kept the guitar in hopes he’ll be able to play again if he moves to the U.S.
Asmaa, 19, is the oldest of the seven siblings, and wants to be a pharmacist. She completed high school in Jordan but has been unable to go to university here because of high admission costs.
“It’s not enough that our country is gone, do we have to lose our futures too?” Asmaa asked.
Everyday, the family keeps in touch using social media like Viber and WhatsApp. Madian showed me a recent photo of Muhannad and Thuria in front of a yellow school bus in Boston.
“He’s been going to school in America, and his English has gotten really good,” Madian said. “He translates for his mother sometimes.”
Abdulrahman, now almost two years old, only knows his family through phone and video calls.
“She points at us and tells him, this is your dad, these are your siblings, and keeps repeating our names,” Madian said.
The hardest part is the waiting, Thuria tells me through a Viber call.
“I am suffocating. I am staying patient because I know how tired my husband is in Jordan, and I want my children to get an education here. I just want my family to be safe.”