Tuesday marked her first visit to a grocery store since arriving in Fresno two weeks ago. Aziza Mohamad Haidar walked slowly down each aisle, her two youngest daughters sitting wide-eyed in the shopping cart.
Haidar, 34, is one of Fresno’s newest Syrian refugees. Iman Akroum, another Syrian woman who arrived four years ago seeking asylum, walked in front of her, pointing out ingredients Haidar could use to make Syrian dishes.
Akroum picked up a bag of dates, pointed to a can of garbanzo beans and tahini for hummus, and pointed out a bottle of Crisco cooking oil.
Haidar decided carefully. Her first choice was two small cans of cream to make kunafa nabulsiah bil-kishta, a cheesy dessert that she hasn’t had in months. She prefers to cook things from scratch.
They quickly made their way through the small Dunia Market, an Armenian-owned, Syrian-run kosher grocery not far from Fresno State. Haidar filled the cart with staples – bags of rice, dry garbanzo beans, lentils, sugar, cheese and yogurt. Produce bags overflowed with roma tomatoes and cucumbers. In the refrigerated section, she picked up something new to her and quintessentially American: hot dogs.
Haidar’s family is among about 11,000 exiles in the U.S. who fled the Syrian civil war – and just a sliver of the millions displaced. The White House announced in September that it will accept more refugees from countries throughout the world next year, increasing the number to 110,000 compared with the 85,000 allowed in 2016.
Syria had been at war for three years before the violence reached Aleppo. Haidar’s family lived in the suburbs until 2014, when planes started flying over the city and dropping cluster bombs on unsuspecting civilians.
Haidar, who spoke through an interpreter, threw her hands up, fingers spread, to illustrate how the bombs rained down. Militants with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS, aimed for the rebels and the rebels aimed for ISIS, and everyone else was caught in between.
Sometimes when Haidar left her home, she would see a bomb explode and rush back inside. When her daughter’s leg was accidentally burned with hot water, the hospital they went to was filled with the dead, the disfigured and the amputated. Blood was everywhere.
“All these ugly scenes,” she said through an interpreter. “They were coming in injured and leaving dead.”
They were coming in injured and leaving dead.
Aziza Mohamad Haidar, 34, of Syria
They fled to Jordan, where Haidar’s husband has family, until being granted refugee status. They’re considered lucky; many Syrians go to large refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey, where living conditions are harsh.
The family landed in Los Angeles in September, and was transported through the International Rescue Committee to Turlock.
More refugees, maybe
Fresno is not an official resettlement site for those fleeing war. The city hasn’t received a major surge of refugees since 3,000 Hmong arrived in 2004.
But around 15 families recently have moved to Fresno from Turlock and other settlement sites in California. Most live as neighbors in the same north-central Fresno apartment complex. The Fresno Unified School District has enrolled at least 20 Syrian refugee students in the past month.
The IRC is one of nine organizations tasked by the federal government with settling refugees around the country. Families are assigned to specific areas because they have family or friends there, or because the organization has capacity in a given place.
Each refugee is given $925 by the U.S. Department of State when they arrive, money that is meant to help them secure a place to live and other necessities. They also are eligible for a variety of other assistance programs through the federal and state governments.
Members of Turlock’s Arab community reached out to those in Fresno for help with donations, said Ihab El Zaanoun, who has helped organize local aid. Some Fresnans visited the refugees in Turlock and found them living in motels with difficulty finding affordable, permanent housing that accepted large families.
Fresno is a much bigger city with more resources and a bigger Muslim community willing to help. One family decided to move here and others, including Haidar’s family, soon followed.
“People here can help until they get conversational in English,” El Zaanoun said. “It’s a stepping stone. They have the support of the community.”
Fresno could become a designated settlement site. Karen Ferguson, executive director of the IRC in Northern California, said the organization is considering proposing that an office be established here. That consideration is still preliminary and would have to be approved by the State Department.
If approved, around 100 to 150 refugees could come to Fresno during the year afterward, Ferguson said. The IRC accepts refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burma. None comes directly from their country of origin; they have all fled, presented themselves to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and have been vetted, she said.
Ferguson said an influx of refugees in the U.S. at the end of the fiscal year meant there were more arriving in Turlock at that time than normal, causing some families to be placed temporarily in motels. That surge has ended, she said, but because the U.S. has increased the number of refugees it will allow next year, new sites will be necessary.
Ferguson has had conversations with community members and groups, including the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno and Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries.
“The influx changes everything,” said Reza Nekumanesh, director of the Islamic Cultural Center. “Now we need to find ways to organize to help people on a larger scale.”
We need to find ways to organize to help people on a larger scale.
Reza Nekumanesh, director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno
That includes a training session with Ferguson this week for individuals and organizations interested in coordinating aid efforts for the new residents. The current effort is less organized, more grass-roots. A patchwork of mostly Muslim community volunteers finds donations of food, clothes, housewares, transportation, health care, translators and work.
Some volunteers “adopt” families. One of the most active is Wasan Abu-Baker, a Palestinian immigrant who has been the point person for many incoming refugees the past few years.
Abu-Baker has visited Fresno’s newest refugees several times. She said they came from different areas in Syria, including Damascus and Aleppo, and many were farmers. She told them the agency help is temporary but that people in Fresno care about them.
“They have been through a lot,” she said. “I will not ask them, I will let them talk. But you can see in their eyes that they’ve been through a lot.
“Hopefully this life here will be much better.”
At Dunia Market, Haidar’s daughters, ages 2 and 4, clung to packages of strawberry-flavored cookies and begged their mother to let them indulge. She turned them down in Arabic.
Sham Ismail Abdulkader is the youngest, the only child born in Jordan instead of their homeland. Her first name means Syria, an ode to what was left behind but now is always with them.
Nabih Dagher, the Syrian store manager, added item after item to the shopping cart for free: apples, potatoes, more rice, more cookies and dates.
Dagher has been here 30 years. He said he helps people as much as he can.
“It’s a humanitarian issue,” he said. “They are from Syria and I am from Syria. It’s the same blood.”
Just before the family left, Dagher asked Haidar what her husband had done for work. He worked in retail, selling Syrian-made clothes in Jordan until they were granted refugee status. Dagher told her his friend owns a clothing store in Madera and plans to open another location in Fresno. He told her he would convince his friend to hire her husband.
Fresno’s Syrian refugees are enjoying the welcome of a generous community. On Saturday, Haidar’s entire family got teeth cleanings and cavity fillings at a Clovis dentistry owned by a Syrian couple who opened their doors on their day off.
Haidar and the other recent arrivals received home-cooked meals until they were able to cook their own. That night, she made chicken, rice and a salad.
At first, Haidar was reluctant about leaving Jordan. That feeling has changed.
She isn’t settled in yet, but she is at peace.