“I was taking a child to school and he saw something like a jet. You know the white smoke behind it. When he saw that stream of white, he screamed: ‘Oh My God! Missile, missile!’ He was scared,” Mona Megahed said, an American-Egyptian volunteer who studied medicine at Texas A&M University and helps the Syrians refugees in New Jersey.
With a simple hijab encasing her face, she usually carries a wide smile revealing her sparkly white teeth. In her community engagements, she talks spontaneously and with enthusiasm which makes the people around her see her warm and affectionate.
“We did not really wake up until Trump’s political bashing started happening. I think that’s when a lot of us first started to wake up and this is unfortunate, but I think that’s really what happened,” Megahed said. During his presidential campaign, Trump attacked the Syrian refugees and called out to ban them from entering the United States. Consequently, Megahed and her family felt that they have an obligation to support the Syrian refugees. As an individual, Megahed did not know how to help or where to find the Syrian families in her area. Therefore, she reached out to her children’s school which referred her to a counselor from the Syrian American Council (SAC).
Through the counselor’s network, she and her family started visiting some Syrian families in New Jersey. They asked each family: “What do you need? What is the priority?” Their answers were usually: “We need support, we need jobs, and we need to feel safe where we live.”
To not duplicate the efforts, the SAC counselor and Megahed formed a WhatsApp group for those in the area who are interested in supporting the refugees. One of the ladies in this WhatsApp group organizes a pool of tutors for teaching the families English as a second language at the public libraries on a weekly basis. Even though these sessions last for months, the refugees find them insufficient for language fluency. As Megahed is a member in her children’s Parent Teacher Organization (PTO), she spread the word, and many parents volunteered with her to support the Syrian families. Through its winter and spring carnivals, the school raises awareness about the Syrian refugees and the different ways to support them.
Their life before and after
Among the refugees visited by Megahed were lawyers, construction workers, and businessmen. Back in Syria, some of them owned several cars, lived in villas, and hired housekeepers in their homes. Yet, with their limited English in the US, they can only find jobs at gas stations or as taxi drivers. In addition to their jarring feelings, the salaries are too low and might blow their low-guaranteed welfare.
Moreover, Megahed struggles with the refugee women to convince them to work. In Syria, some of them never needed to work and were caretakers of four or more children.
With a target of $750,000, she created a fund campaign to bestow driving jobs to the refugees. She uses the money to buy other essential supplies like books and clothes and to cover the fees of the driving courses. When the refugees succeed to acquire their driving licenses and willing to work as taxi drivers, Megahed uses the fund-raised money to buy each a $20,000 used car to be a taxi.
Safety still a challenge even in the USA
Shockingly, safety is still a looming challenge as some refugee families are living in dangerous, high-rate-crime areas. When she visited certain families, Megahed herself was worried about her children. One specific family told her that when they first arrived to the United States, they witnessed people stabbed in front of their eyes and in front of their kids. Later their refugee organization relocated this family to a safer place. She wishes to relocate the families to better neighborhoods. “The problem with relocation is that you have to reapply for the welfare and reapply for the exams,” she added.
In the public schools, the children suffer from both bullying and the language barrier. Megahed was happy when a private Islamic school made a grant for few children to join it. Islamic schools provide them a safe space that understands Arabic and Islam, and nurture them in a supportive environment. Although the Islamic schools are private expensive schools, Megahed wishes if more Islamic schools can invite more refugee children to join them for free.
The refugee families, however, are not the worst sufferers: people who are seeking political asylum are. Asylum seekers arrive on their own, not through refugee organizations. The organizations provide housing, medical insurance, house rent for few months, and welfare. Recently, Megahed found that the asylum families do not gain any of these services. Moreover, they don’t have a work permit; thus, they work illegally.
At the end, Megahed voiced an urgent need for psychological rehabilitation for the refugees. “Everyone escaped war to be in a refugee camp. You hear stories that tear your heart apart,” she said. Trained in psychology, Megahed could discern that most of the refugee children suffer from a degree of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). In general, their limited medical insurance covers only a few selection of medical problems. In addition to the medical insurance problem, the stigma of the psychological therapy poses a greater difficulty.
Instead of the individualized support, Megahed and her children’s school PTO are investigating how to found a non-profit organization to support the refugees. She dreams that the organization can welcome the refugees at the airport, assigns them a mentor, houses them in safe areas and follows them up till they find jobs and are settled in the community.