The sounds of gunshots and bombs shook everything around him when 30-year-old Nedal Alkhani looked at the ground through a window on the third floor. He faced a hard decision: Jump or die.
“When I landed, I started running,” Alkhani said through an interpreter. “I don’t know how I ran. I feared I was going to die that time.”
After fighting with the rebels in Syria for two years, Alkhani laid down his weapon and fled his home city of Homs with his family to Jordan, where he applied to migrate to the United States as a war refugee.
Only a little over 3,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled into the United States out of 4.8 million Syrians who have fled their home.
“The shelling became so intense and so random in Homs. There was no safe place to hide anymore,” Alkhani said. “Our house and all the houses on our street were bombarded into ruins.”
Alkhani hired a van driver and headed with his wife and their two children toward the city of Dara’a on the Jordanian border, where they joined 200 other people already waiting for a chance to cross the border. As the Syrian regime prohibits migration out of Syria, the Alkhani family had to bribe officials to cross.
“When we got close to the border, soldiers opened fire on everyone,” Alkhani said. “One older man died.”
I had children to feed. What else could I have done? —Nedal Alkhani
Once on Jordanian land, border patrol officers took the family to a refugee camp, but unlike many refugees, the Alkhani’s were able to leave the camp thanks to a Jordanian relative who helped.
“Thank God, we didn’t stay there for long,” Alkhani said. “Each family had a space about half the size of this kitchen. They treated people like animals.”
Life outside the refugee camp was not easy because refugees are not allowed to work in Jordan. Still, Alkhani found some work to supplement the United Nations’ aid money given to them, which barely paid his house rent. The food coupons worth $50 only lasted 10 days.
“I had children to feed,” Alkhani said. “What else could I have done?”
When U.N. officials contacted him about migrating to the U.S., he applied immediately. The process took 18 months and 11 interviews. The Alkhani family arrived in Memphis last September, one of 10 Syrian refugee families resettled in Memphis, according to data collected by the Tennessee Office for Refugees.
Map by Kristina Vitsenko
Today, Alkhani’s strife is drastically different. He is not surrounded by warfare, but struggles every day to make his family’s next dollar with no English language skills and a sixth grade education.
His worries about money started immediately. He owed the U.S. Department for their flight fares – a total of $6,000.
Refugee families receive a one-time welcome payment of $925 per person from the U.S State Department, or $4,625 total for this family, that was channeled to them through World Relief Memphis.
World Relief Memphis was the Alkhani’s first American contact and provided the family with the basics to get them started in Memphis. The money for basics like couches, kitchenware, and beds was deducted from their welcome money.
“The World Relief Organization took care of the migration process,” Alkhani said. “We were supposed to get $4,500 in welcome money. We only received $900 of it.”
World Relief Memphis also provides English lessons for refugee families. But Alkhani, like other refugees, said he did not learn much. Alkhani gave up after three months because the teacher only spoke English, and he could not understand anything.
Photos by Mia Hairston and Kristina Vitsenko
Rami Alhomsi is another Syrian refugee who gave up on the English classes that World Relief Memphis provided.
“None of us benefited from these lessons. We all quit school after sixth grade,” Alhomsi said in Arabic to an interpreter. “We don’t know any English.”
Saadia Omer, a refugee who has been in the United States for seven years and who is Alkhani’s friend, encourages the family to come and interact with the Muslim community in order to feel more comfortable in public. Eventually, the interaction will help give them courage to practice English.
“I believe they are scared to try and use English,” Omer said. “They should have picked something up now, if not just some simple things. The mosque provides English classes. They just have to make it to the Mosque.”
Because of the language barrier, Alkhani has trouble finding a permanent job. He works for people in the Arab community whenever someone needs an extra hand. He also collects items thrown out in dumpsters and on sidewalks and sells them in a flea market on Summer Avenue. He says people in Memphis throw out things that are in perfect condition.
Alkhani knows he will be evicted from his apartment if he doesn’t pay his rent on time.
“Once I make the $617 for the rent, I feel a great comfort,” Alkhani said. “Everything else is less important.”