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A Syrian family reunion, interrupted

Editor’s note: At the family’s request, we withheld the names and photos of those who are still in the resettlement process, or are still waiting for resettlement overseas. 

Everyone has that one relative who won’t stop sharing cringeworthy posts on social networks. For Jasmin Sibai, it’s her maternal aunt.

“We are literally paying good money to import bad problems!” howls the speaker of a video her aunt, who is a Cuban exile, recently posted.

Titled “REFUGEES EXPOSED! The Truth The Mainstream Media Won’t Tell You,” the clip is one of the many pieces of anti-Muslim propaganda circling the internet lately.

It hits Jasmin particularly hard because the other half of her family is Syrian, and she has spent the past four years helping her father’s civil-war scattered family navigate the byzantine U.S. refugee application system.

“We really haven’t spoken since my tía shared that video.” she laments.

In July 2016, with Jasmin’s help, five of her family members made it over from Jordan, where they had been living since they fled Syria. They’re now living in Sunny Isles. Ten are stuck in Saudi Arabia.

The tumult around President Donald Trump’s two failed executive order banning refugees from several countries, including Syria, and last week’s airstrikes on Syria, has left the fate of those remaining family members more uncertain than ever.

The first journey

Jasmin’s father, Tamar, and his brother, Talal, are from Homs, Syria, the cradle of the revolution that began in 2011. They came to the U.S. more than 30 years ago, fleeing the regime of the current president’s father, Hafez al-Assad.

To avoid Syria’s mandatory military service, Tamar began studying to become a veterinarian (those in school wouldn’t be drafted). He was also an avid athlete and was surrounded by a big family.

When he and Talal first arrived in Miami, they spoke barely any English. They got restaurant jobs, and eventually saved up enough money to open up a grocery store in Liberty City in the 1980s. Tamar began going by Tony, Talal by George. When a nearby shooting left bullet holes in their shop windows, they decided to relocate to Collins Avenue on South Beach.

They renamed the new store “Hot Stop” and her father worked on perfecting his cafe con leches, which neighboring workers loved. He began dating Jasmin’s mother, a Cuban exile.

Jasmine’s mother came to Miami from Varadero, Cuba, when she was just two years old. She came with her mother, but it took years before Jasmin’s grandfather could leave the island.

“In Cuba, my grandfather was a lawyer,” says Jasmin. But in America, “he became a trucker. He drove for Coca-Cola.”

Sibai speaks of him and of her family in a voice that holds just the slightest tinge of Miami accent. She is a native of this city, as comfortable ordering a cortadito at a ventanita as she is answering the Fajr, the morning’s first call to prayer.

Her parents divorced by the time she was five and she grew up attending both secular public schools and private Islamic institutions. She never quite fit in. At her Islamic elementary school, she had to wear a headscarf, but she “rebelled.” She remembers being punished for taking the covering off and throwing it on the ground during recess.

“It gets hot in Florida, and those things don’t really breathe,” she says.

The family’s Syrian roots mattered little for a long time. Life in Syria was good enough that some family members who could have resettled in the U.S. chose to stay there.

Jasmin visited the family twice, once in 2000 and once in 2009. She visited her father’s hometown, experienced the culture, and got to know her family. They went to the beach and she and all her female family members went in their bikinis – defying her expectations of a very conservative society.

The war begins

The Syrian revolution began in March 2011. Democracy activists in Homs, emboldened by the Arab Spring, staged mass demonstrations calling for an end to decades of authoritarian rule. President Bashar al-Assad cracked down, hard.

Back then, Jasmin was at Michael Krop Senior High School near Aventura, where she stood out for being a Muslim.

“A lot of the Jewish kids would pick on me. The teachers had to get involved,” she says.

While the world watched with horror from the comfort of their living rooms as Syria descended into a full-blown civil war, Jasmin had a front row seat. She and her cousin, who lived in Homs, would Skype weekly. That cousin now lives in America, but the stories he would tell Jasmin were gruesome.

“The security forces wanted people to stop protesting, so they started kidnapping the protesters, who were mainly kids and teenagers. That’s how the war started in Homs, people taking up arms because their children had been taken,” Jasmin says.

The atrocities began coming more swiftly. A neighbor was shot while waiting in line for bread. At one point the body of a little boy her cousin knew appeared in pieces in front the child’s home, a bloody message from Assad’s security services.

In 2013, while Jasmin was a freshman at UM, Tony and George began making plans to get the rest of the family out of Syria, begging them via Skype to consider it. But they didn’t want to leave. They expected the US to intervene.

In January 2014, her father’s cousin was killed in a regime airstrike as he was leaving Friday prayer at the mosque. Jasmin’s uncle owned several factories around Homs and most of them were also bombed.

Jasmin, Tony, and George became more insistent. She remembers saying, “If you guys don’t leave, you’ll die in the next week. Your neighbors will sell you out for food.”

Leading two lives

Sophomore year came. By day, Jasmin was a top student. By night, she was her scattered family’s unofficial immigration lawyer.

The aunts, uncles, and cousins she had met and grown close to in a 2009 trip to her father’s homeland had now joined some other 13.5 million Syrians displaced by the war.

At one point in 2013 she had two family members in Lebanon, four in Jordan, and 10 in Saudi Arabia, and they all needed some kind of help. One of her uncles suffered a massive heart attack while in a refugee camp.

Suddenly Jasmin was juggling biology homework, composition assignments, and refugee application paperwork.

Jasmin had to make sure sure her family didn’t just flee Homs pell-mell.

“When you’re leaving a war, the last thing on your mind is your birth certificate, or your driver’s license,” she says.

But because of Jasmin, her family left with their documents in. They would need them hand to begin their new lives as refugees.

While Tony and George scraped money together to rent apartments in Amman and Riyadh, Jasmine focused on bringing the family to America. It would take three and a half years to get even a few of them here. The scrutiny is intense, the process interminable.

“First you have to register with the United Nations,” she notes. Then the UN checks a refugee’s identity against international police records, a process which can take months.

“After the first background check, you get another UN interview, then Homeland Security interviews you and runs your identity again, to see if your stories match up, to make sure you really are who you say you are.

“They take your biometrics, and after all the checks are done, you have to go to more interviews and classes to make sure you’ll assimilate into American culture,” she recounts off the top of her head.

The process took it’s toll on Jasmine and her family’s resources. She had to ask UM for a hardship tuition waiver as her family in the US scrambled to get money to those scattered across the Middle East.

As each new part of the refugee application arrived in the mail, she would dutifully scan it and send it to her scattered family.  She coordinated their appointments with officials. She made sure their forms were filled out correctly.

In July 2016, her five family members in Jordan were given the green light. When they picked them up at Miami International Airport, everyone was in tears.

The first stop was a Papa John’s restaurant.

“They loved it, they liked the garlic sauce,” she says.

Refugee bans and protests

Jasmine still has 10 family members in Saudi Arabia, mostly aunts and female cousins. Although they can’t really work there because of their legal status, they are comfortable enough.

President Trump’s campaign threat of a Muslim registry throughout 2016 made Jasmin nervous, but the family in Saudi Arabia was hopeful since some of them had already made it to America.

The election, though, was a rude shock. Jasmin flew up to D.C. to participate in the Jan. 21 Women’s March on Washington after his election, and participated in the protests against the refugee ban at Miami International Airport as well.

“Protesting in Syria and Cuba will land you in prison, but here I have the right to protest,” she said in an e-mail.

The family agonized over what the travel bans would mean and whether they would hold up. Although they have been cut down, for now, the family is still afraid. Those in Saudi Arabia are considering staying there until the war ends.

“I guess they feel America is more hostile to them than Saudi Arabia, that they might have a better shot at life there than here,” she says.

She goes several times a week to Sunny Isles to spend time with and help the the newly arrived family.

They’re integrating well into American society.  Her uncle, the one who owned the factories in Syria, is about to move to Orlando to work in a chocolate factory. He also recently got his realtor’s license, and he and Jasmin’s aunt are quickly overcoming their difficulties with English.

As she helps her little cousins with their homework, the smells of her aunt’s Syrian cooking transport her back to the summer of 2009, when she visited Syria for the first and last time, and explored the now-ruined cities of Homs and Damascus. Her cousins are integrating quickly.

“All the three kids speak English and have made many friends. They love America.”

But even though her mother met all of Jasmin’s Sryian family when she married her father, Jasmin still encounters prejudice from some of the family.

“I don’t understand my mom’s side. Did they forget where they came from? Weren’t they refugees themselves?”

Ariel Zirulnick contributed reporting. George’s name was corrected after publication of the piece.

By Mario Ariza
Mario Alejandro Ariza is a Dominican immigrant who grew up in Miami. A Michener Fellow in poetry at the University of Miami’s Master in Fine Arts program, he is currently working on a nonfiction book about South Florida and Sea Level Rise. On a day with a good swell and northeasterly breezes, you’ll find him surfing on South Beach (yes, there’s actually surfing Miami.)