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Fleeing Syria: Jobs, help from church community are critical to stability here in U.S

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From left, Muhanad Azzawi and Firas Aljumaily, both Iraqi refugees, work at EFI on Tuesday, July 22, 2014 in Kernersville, N.C. (Andrew Dye/Journal)

KERNERSVILLE, N.C. — The work here at EFI, which makes architectural glass and aluminum, takes strength and skill. Glass sheets can weigh as much as 155 pounds and the measurements must be exact. On a summer morning, the plant floor is noisy and hot, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

In the company’s early years, it had trouble finding and keeping reliable employees. But these days, when Jeanne Clary, the company’s human resources director, has a vacancy she calls the World Relief office in High Point, a local refugee resettlement agency.

“I will almost always call World Relief first,” said Clary. “The reasoning for that is we’ve gone through the newspaper, we’ve done the advertising online. We take application all day every day and what I get is they want to make a lot of money or they only want to work certain hours or their work history.”

Today 21 out of 68 workers at EFI are refugees, coming from Iraq, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cuba, Eritrea, Burundi, Ethiopia, Myanmar and Sudan. Some were farmers back home, with little or no education; others are college graduates who worked as translators or teachers. EFI pays $10 an hour to start, and up to $13.

The war between Israel and Gaza and the U.S. airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq have captured international headlines for the last month, but the carnage continues in Syria.

So far, it’s not clear how many of the 3 million Syrian refugees will find their way to the U.S. or even when they will arrive. But resettlement agencies working here say that it’s companies like EFI that make the Triad a good place for refugees to make a fresh start.

Andrew Timbie, the director of the High Point office of World Relief, has spent the summer making a pitch to his national office to send refugees this way. He expects to resettle 450 refugees in the next year, with a handful from Syria. “Generally speaking it’s a very good area for refugee resettlement,” he said. “The weather’s good. It’s warm. There’s a newcomer’s school. There are clinics here. There are lots of jobs for refugees.”

The United Nations announced this year that 30,000 of the 3 million Syrian refugees who have found asylum in neighboring countries will be resettled, with another 50,000 in 2015 and 50,000 more in 2016. Larry Bartlett, the Director of Refugee Admissions at the State Department, said that the U.S. will accept a portion of the first wave and more in later years. So far, only 96 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the U.S since the war broke out, mostly people who had applied to come to the U.S. before the war.

Bartlett said that the U.N., the U.S. and other host countries had hoped that the war in Syria would end and that refugees living in neighboring countries would be able to go home. “When that did not happen, the countries and UNHCR agreed it was time to engage in resettlement,” Bartlett said. Once a refugee is approved to come to the U.S., a process that can take a year or longer, the state department begins working with nine non-profit resettlement agencies that work in every state but Wyoming. According to data collected by the Refugee Processing Center, 1,834 refugees had settled in North Carolina between October 2013 and June 2014, making North Carolina one of the top 12 states for refugee resettlement.

“This program works well because communities support refugees and they understand where refugees have come from and they recognize the kind of trauma refugees have come from and they really are welcoming,” Bartlett said. “Frankly, North Carolina has been a very good state for us.”

Iraqi refugee in High Point

Firas Aljumaily heard about North Carolina from his boss with the U.S. Army in Baghdad. He worked in the gym, where U.S. soldiers stayed fit, and in the laundry. But his ties to the U.S. Army also made him a target for violence and four years ago he applied for refugee status. “We’re not allowed to work with the Americans so they’re looking for us,” he said. “At this time, we don’t have choice. We cannot find other job. We have to work.”

In March 2013, Aljumaily, 34, left his wife and young children in Baghdad, thinking it was he who was in danger, not them, and arrived in High Point. He worked two other jobs before landing at EFI in July. “I miss them so much,” he said. “When I left, my son was 8 months and now he’s 2 years. He’s started walking and talking. And my daughter is 6 years. She started school.”

Even with a steady job, the transition is hard. And sometimes it’s the small freedoms that count the most. Muhanad Azzawi, 29, works with Aljumaily in the glass room at EFI. He came here from Iraq five months ago with his older sister and younger brother. He said that his sister was threatened in Baghdad because she worked for a U.S. refugee agency. And on top of that, she didn’t cover her head with the traditional hijab. Now, safely settled in High Point, Azzawi’s sister is learning to drive. “We have a life; we can do anything,” Azzawi said. “There is some things, maybe you will find it weird. I cannot wear shorts in Iraq. I cannot wear my hair long. You are unable to do that in Iraq. The relationships are so complicated. So that’s what I was missing. Simple stuff, but its basics. I mean, I want to wear shorts.”

The federal government provides refugees with a stipend that lasts for three months and extended federal benefits for six more months. They are also eligible for state aid, such as food stamps and Medicaid. But Timbie’s first goal is to help refugees find a job. In spite of North Carolina’s unemployment rate of 6.4 percent, Timbie said he can count on a handful of employers other than EFI that are eager to hire refugees, among them Ralph Lauren Corp. and Tyson Foods Inc..

Timbie knows that refugees need more than a job. That’s why resettlement agencies work closely with volunteers, many from local churches, who will commit to a refugee family for the long haul, helping find schools, a bus route or simply offering companionship. That’s partly why so many refugee agencies have offices in North Carolina, where church is central to so many communities.

Kernersville church helps out

Friendly Arabic Church in Kernersville started working with Iraqi refugees in 2009. Most were Muslims. “ These are our people,” said the church pastor, Salim Andraos. “We speak the same language.” He raised money from his congregation to pay for rent and buy clothing and household supplies for more than a dozen Iraqis. The transition from Iraq to North Carolina was harder than many expected, he said. Some imagined high salaries instead of the low-wage jobs they found. The lack of public transportation made the simplest errands difficult. Some went back to the Middle East. But with enough support, Andraos knows that refugees can make a life here.

“Most of us at Friendly Arabic Church came, one way or another, as refugees — economic refugees or driven out because of civil wars or persecution of Christians,” said Andraos, a Palestinian by way of Lebanon. “The congregation consists of believers form Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Sudan, Egypt, Iraq, so we are not strangers to being refugees.”

It’s Sunday morning and Danya Yadago, 21, is center stage, leading the congregation at Friendly Arabic in rousing Gospel. “Salam Allah Ajeeb Weban wast el khatar,” she sings. Later, she translated: God’s peace is great and it appears in the middle of danger. Her father, Khaled, a deacon, stands before the congregation, holding a tray of wafers for communion. Her mother, her two younger sisters, and her older brother join her for the refrain.

The Yadagos came here as refugees in 2010 after a harrowing trip by way of Lebanon from Tel Isqof, a Christian town in northern Iraq. Their neighbors, Danya said, were Catholic and didn’t like that they were evangelicals holding Bible study in their home.

Soon there were threats spray painted in the town: “Khaled, leave or we will cut your head.” Then, someone broke into their father’s shop and left a death threat. There were also other dangers from the war that raged around them. One day, while the girls were in school, a car bomb went off in the courtyard and two of their friends were injured. “The bomb came in and we were really, really scared,” Danya said.

The family packed a few small bags and flew to Lebanon, where they lived in one room for a year, waiting for refugee status. When asked where they wanted to go, they named Winston-Salem, because they already had relatives here. Four years later, Khaled works at night in the cafeteria at Forsyth Medical Center and takes English at Forsyth Technical Community College. He plans to go on to study heating and air conditioning. His son is also working at a hotel and studying toward a degree in heating and air conditioning so that he and his father can work together, like they did in Iraq. Danya graduated high school in 2013 and is now a student at Salem College and working at Panera Bread and a Christian book store. And the two youngest girls, ages 11 and 12, are in school.

Danya and Dany know how hard it’ll be for Syrians who choose to settle in the U.S. “They just don’t know,” Danya said. “They think when you are in the U.S. all your dreams come true and it’s an easy life. Regardless of the situation, they are not safe there. But here, you have to work, wherever it is.”

“And start from scratch,” her brother Dany added.

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