'The ache for home': One refugee's journey from Syria to the US

By Coco McCabe
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Ali Aljundi and his son, Mohaned, got an early start at a recent vigil in Boston aimed at drawing attention to the plight of more than four million refugees from Syria. Coco McCabe

For Ali Aljundi and his family, memories of their old life crowd their new one in Massachusetts

Ali Aljundi, a 55-year-old refugee from Syria, might be more addicted to social media than his kids are, and with good reason. It’s his lifeline to all that’s happening back home where more than four years of brutal civil war has shattered his old life and the lives of millions of others.

It’s through Facebook and Twitter feeds, Instagram and blog posts that Aljundi gleans bits and pieces about the terrible fate of the communities he and his large now-scattered family once called home. One of 12 children, he and six of his siblings—half of his immediate family—have now fled, abandoning homes, careers, and most of their possessions to join the ever-increasing number of refugees  who have made the often dangerous and sometimes deadly journey out of their country, into neighboring countries as well as into Europe and other safe havens. More than four million alone are from Syria, including 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, whose small body washed ashore in Turkey, shocking the world, when the boat in which his family was escaping capsized in the Mediterranean a few weeks ago.

“It is a real nightmare. There are no solutions or options,” says Aljundi of the bloody fighting in Syria. “The reason people are dying in the sea is because there is violence everywhere. No job opportunities. No Security. No future. People are hopeless. They say we will die sooner or later. At least in the sea we’ll have some opportunity to survive.”

Such bleakness is not part of the Syria Aljundi remembers and longs for. His city, Salamieh, where his mother still lives, was a place of tolerance and diversity, he says, a place with many well-educated people who made their livings through a mix of government work and agriculture. But the conflict has put extreme pressure on the city and its surrounding district. Despite being in a semi-arid region, Salamieh means “flood”—a name now weighted with irony as severe water shortages plague residents, leaving many with access to a clean supply for just a few hours once every 12 days or so.

Even before the fighting, water was scarce, says Aljundi, with delivery cut to every three or four days. At the heart of the problem was climate change, poor planning, and over-consumption, he adds, noting that in recent decades farmers had planted millions of olive trees in an unsustainable bid for revenue. Unemployment had also been climbing, as high as 35 percent among young people, Aljundi says. So it may be no surprise that when demonstrations against the government first erupted in Syria, Salamieh was the third city to join the movement—peacefully, Aljundi adds.

Salamieh, Ali Aljudi's home in Syria, sits on the horizon. Ali Aljundi

Refugees-in-waiting

But the peace was short-lived. Within a year, Aljundi, his wife Hanadi Adrah, and their two sons, Mohamed and Mohaned, knew they had to get out. Aljundi was working for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNWRA, as a career guidance coordinator, a job that required him to travel frequently throughout the country in a white UN vehicle—a potential target for both state and non-state armed groups. And Adrah served as an art teacher in village schools around Salamieh: At least twice she received threats of kidnapping or death from groups determined to shut the schools down. She no longer felt safe working, says Aljundi.

So, it was with a bit of good luck that just then the Open Society Foundations offered Aljundi a full two-year scholarship to Brandeis University in Massachusetts to earn his master’s degree in sustainable international development.

Aljundi had long dreamed of getting the degree in his own country, capping an academic career that began with voracious childhood reading. Even though his mother didn’t learn to read herself until she was 50 and enrolled in an adult education program, his parents had always put a premium on education. And though as a bus driver for the Ministry of Agriculture his father didn’t make enough to keep Aljundi in books, the elder man struck up a friendship with a bookseller who agreed to loan the family, for 10 cents, whatever tome Aljundi had his eye on—so long as he returned it in good enough shape to be sold to a buyer with deeper pockets.

“My father said I’m a poor man. I cannot help you with inheritance,” recalls Aljundi. “The only thing I can do is help you be well-educated. This is our fortune.”

If the scholarship offer had come at a different time, Aljundi says he might not have taken it. Having inherited from his father a keen sense of social responsibility, Aljundi’s heart is in Syria, in using his skills to work with local people, in helping to empower them. But back then—in 2012—everything was suddenly different. And dangerous.

“This opportunity came at the right time for me and my family,” he says.

But, he almost missed the chance. E-mails from the society detailing the offer had been intercepted: The word “society” in the address was the trigger, Aljundi suspects, and someone was blocking the messages. With the deadline looming, the society finally called him and asked why he hadn’t answered any of the messages and was he coming?

Salamieh is the city where Ali Aljundi grew up among a big family of 12 siblings. Ali Aljundi

The scramble for papers

Without a US embassy in Syria, Aljundi had to travel to Lebanon to get the proper papers—a journey full of perils, including passing the nearby city of Homs where fighting was in full force. Everyone in his family was worried he wouldn’t make it.

Then came the trip to the airport. First, Aljundi booked his flight through Lebanon, but when a pro-government militia blocked the road to the airport there, he switched at the last minute to fly out of Damascus. That airport road, too, was in jeopardy.

“It was a big challenge to get out,” says Aljundi, recalling his deep fear as he approached the airport security forces, and the wave of relief after they let him through.

But the journey was just beginning of his anxiety. For the next two months, Aljundi scrambled to assemble the vast amount of paperwork necessary to ensure his family could leave safely as well.

“It was a nightmare for me to get them here,” he says. “My wife was alone. She had not traveled abroad before.” And Syrian security at the border had recently imposed new rules prohibiting families with children from leaving the country, says Aljundi. Making things worse was the challenge of ensuring his family got the documents he had prepared.

“It’s impossible to send anything to Syria. No FedEx. No DHL. Nothing,” says Aljundi. In the end, he mailed the documents to a friend in Lebanon who sent them with a driver into Syria.

Packing just clothes and little else—no books, no household goods, and only a few of their most precious photographs—Aljundi’s family headed for the border of Lebanon. Aljundi had already cashed in all his savings—“Everything I had in my life,” he says-- to buy the trio round-trip airline tickets, knowing full well they wouldn’t use the return flight. The Lebanese customs officials would not allow Syrians to travel from the airport unless they had also booked a flight back.

But even with all the paperwork in order and an appointment with the US embassy in Lebanon, border guards blocked the family from crossing for several hours. Luckily, one of Aljundi’s brothers had accompanied his wife and sons, and worked tirelessly to ensure their escape.

“It was very tough for my wife, and the kids also were very afraid,” says Aljundi.

‘You’re  blackmailing me’

Back at Brandeis, Aljundi faced a new set of problems. As his family struggled to cross into Lebanon and leave the horrors of war behind them, Aljundi scoured the rental ads in the Boston area looking for a place they could all live.

“No one wanted to rent to me because I didn’t have a credit history,” he says. Finally, he found someone who would—on one condition: that Aljundi cough up not only the broker’s fees but half a year’s rent in advance.

“I told the broker you’re blackmailing me,” recalls Aljudi. “But I had no choice. I paid $9,000 just to have the apartment.”

That apartment, one of four in a house in Waltham, is now the family’s small home—a far cry from the house in Salamieh that Aljundi and his wife spent years of their married life saving for and building. After months of indecision, they realized they had no choice but to sell their family home in Syria—and most of its furnishings—to make ends meet here.

Now, the boys share a room, as they did at home, minus the hand-crafted beds Aljundi had the best carpenter in Salamieh build for them, a labor of love that took eight months. For their bedroom, Aljundi and Adrah squeeze into what the broker billed as “an office.”

It’s not a perfect arrangement, but Aljundi is loath to uproot his children again.

“They want to feel stable,” he says. “They have friends, relationships.”

And though they are settling in—“Both boys are now pure American,” says Aljundi—their Syrian home, filled often with cousins and aunts and uncles, is very much on their minds.

“Still, they suffer,” says Aljundi, recalling how for months after their arrival his youngest son would slip for safety into his parents’ bed to sleep.  Even now there are nights when he still needs that security, says Aljundi. “They cannot forget.”

That goes for the good times—and the terrifying ones.

“Still now if we hear a helicopter we become crazy, very nervous,” says Aljundi. “Is it coming to attack us? This is what was happening in Syria.”

While Aljundi has found a job working for Oxfam doing humanitarian response outreach on Syria, Adrah’s days serving up donuts drag interminably.

“She’s not happy at all,” he says of her job. “She was a very successful art teacher in the public schools for years in Syria. Now, she has left her career and works in customer service at a food chain.” His dream is to help Adrah return to college here in the US. But like so many other challenges refugees face, this one will not be easy to surmount: Tuition is expensive, even at community colleges, and Adrah is not eligible for student loans.

Several hundred people turned out for a vigil in support of Syrian refugees on a recent Saturday in Boston. Coco McCabe

Staying connected to home

Though Aljundi is grateful to be here, he, too can think about little but home. That may explain the phone that is almost always in the palm of his hand, wiring him to the Internet and family members. Whenever there’s electricity in Salamieh, he’ll try to call or Skype with his mother and siblings, or with Adrah’s parents in Damascus.

“The electricity comes one hour, two hours a day,” he says. “It’s difficult to catch them, so I keep trying.”

He keeps the conversations banal, about the health of family members and the state of the infrastructure they depend on. Is there electricity? Water? Food?

“More than that, I cannot ask—for their security,” says Aljundi. Probing questions could get them all into trouble.

So to relieve some of his anxiety, Aljundi is throwing himself into community organizing, just as he did at home. On a recent Saturday, he participated in a candlelight vigil in downtown Boston to raise awareness about the plight of millions of other Syrians forced from their homes. The US has welcomed fewer than 1,500 for resettlement.

Several hundred people gathered for the event, many carrying placards and signs. For Aljundi and his family, the words of Maya Angelou, splashed in pink and orange on a white board, might sum up their feelings best: “The ache for home lives in all of us.”


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