JERSEY CITY, N.J.—Hussam Al Roustom and his wife didn’t tell anyone before they and their two small children left Syria, fearing their plans for escape could fall apart.
Leaving their homeland had never been part of the picture. Al Roustom had a supermarket and owned their home in the western Syria city of Homs. But a civil war that started with unrest in 2011 had taken its toll, especially on his son Wesam, already dealing with autism and so traumatized by the barrage of violence that he stopped speaking entirely.
“When they would exit the house, it was only to the sounds of war,” Al Roustom said through a translator. “When they would sleep, they would hear the sound of bullets.”
These days, it’s the sounds of passing cars and conversations between people on the street for Al Roustom and his wife, Suha, as they and their children settle into their small apartment in Jersey City, New Jersey. They’ve been here about three months, among the 1,500 or so Syrian refugees who have been resettled in the United States out of an estimated 4 million who fled the country in recent years.
Wesem, now 7, speaks “a few words,” his father said. He and Maaesa, 3, have been to the park, the pool, and the beach, and Wesem has learned to swim. Al Roustom just started a job with a moving company, work found through the help of Church World Service, the organization that is helping resettle the family.
“In Syria we lost a lot of our dignity,” he said. “Here, I’m sure the situation will be much better.”
They’re hopeful that other relatives will be able to follow; the Obama administration announced recently that 10,000 Syrian refugees would be accepted in the coming fiscal year. And Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday that the United States will accept 85,000 refugees from around the world next year, and up to 100,000 in 2017.
Al Roustom’s three brothers and a sister are in Jordan, and his wife has a sister in Lebanon. All have registered with the United Nations’ refugee agency.
The “circumstances of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is extremely difficult; I would love for her to come here,” said Suha, who didn’t want to give her last name for fear of reprisals to family still in Syria, including her parents. She and her husband have different last names.
There’s not much they can do other than hope. Refugees here can file papers on behalf of children or parents arguing for family reunification, but siblings aren’t eligible, said Mahmoud Mahmoud, director of Church World Service’s Jersey City office.
Suha’s parents aren’t refugees because they haven’t left Syria. Asked whether they should try to leave, her eyes filled with tears and she had no answer.
It’s been a difficult, long journey, Al Roustom said in an interview last week. In the year prior to their leaving, they had moved four times because of the violence.
“In Syria, we would keep going from place to place; there was no future for my son,” Suha said through a translator.
They initially left in March 2013 with a group of other families, sitting in the back of a big vegetable truck. After a few hours, they were dropped off in the desert, and then walked for a couple additional hours until Jordanians met them.
“We were extremely scared, but we reached to a point it’s either death, or live with dignity or freedom,” Al Roustom said.
They reached the border with Jordan and spent a month in a refugee camp there, then lived for two years in a cramped apartment with one of his brothers.
Syrian refugees aren’t allowed to work in Jordan. When Jordanian authorities caught Al Roustom working, it was off to another refugee camp while they went through the process of trying to get to the United States. That took about a year of extensive interviews and background checks with multiple agencies.
Leaving the country where they grew up was wrenching, “but when you see your children day by day getting worse—diseases, death—we have to save them,” Al Roustom said.
Syrian refugees have been leaving the country in droves, many taking desperate measures and resorting to dangerous journeys across ocean waters to get to Europe. European nations have been in crisis as governments try to deal with the influx, some closing borders. Hungary, for instance, has been building razor wire and steel fences at its borders.
In the United States, Syrian refugees have been resettled in 33 states this fiscal year, according to the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. Texas and Michigan have taken in the most, with 172 people each. New Jersey has gotten 73, according to the most recent data.
The United States will accept 85,000 refugees from around the world next year, up from 70,000, and that total would rise to 100,000 in 2017, Kerry said at a news conference with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier after they discussed the mass migration of Syrians fleeing their civil war.
Many, though not all, of the additional refugees would be Syrian, American officials have said. Others would come from strife-torn areas of Africa. The White House had previously announced that it intended to take in 10,000 additional Syrian refugees over the next year.
In Jersey City, Al Roustom said, he feels “like a normal human being,” able to enjoy simple things like taking his kids to the park or a funny moment with his wife.
“In four years, we felt like we haven’t been able to laugh,” he said.