Refugee families find new home in Panama City

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PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - The debate over immigration, especially the relocation of Syrian refugees, has divided communities all over the country.

Relocation agencies across the country help approved families start over in the United States. We sat down with two such families who moved to Panama City within the last year, and the woman who has helped them settle into life in the United States.

For the Al Qasy family, most of their days are now spent starting over. Several nights a week, mother Rehab Al Okla, father Nasr Al Qasy and their eldest daughter sit around a table with other immigrants learning English together.

They've been in Panama City for a little more than six months. Life is different here but so far, they say, it's better.

This family of nine, with children ages five to 20, are from a small village in the district of Daraa, Syria. Nasr worked as a psychology teacher and said life before the war was normal. But soon, war began to take its toll. Their house and Nasr's school dealt with bombing and frequent power outages.

"Our house was destroyed completely," Nasr said in Arabic. "Thank God we were outside. Our house was by the highway and was bombed by the Syrian regime. The schools were hit, mosques attacked the next week. Some of the students, when they were going to the school, were killed. There are a lot of strikes but people kept going to school."

As we talked with the family, thunder booms outside and the whole family jumps. Nasr laughs and says, in English, "Just like Syria."

The family decided to leave near the end of 2011, and moved to Erbil, Egypt.

The family of Ahmad Alkdr and Ferida Al Abt also sought refuge in the United States after leaving Syria in 2011. They've been in the country for about a year, having moved to Panama City from their first location in Miami.

They are from Raqqa, east of Aleppo. Father Ahmad worked in construction. He said he wanted his family to leave when the protesting began.

"The situation was the hardest for me because I was aware of what was happening," Ahmad said in Arabic. "The children didn’t know what was going on. I felt it that, I have to get my family out of Syria because something will happen. Get out of Syria with the least damage. I am happy that I made it to get my family out and not make my children witness any war."

He went ahead first to Jordan to find a new home. But when his family tried to join him they were denied, repeatedly, at the border.

His 12-year-old son Amar was in third grade at the time and vaguely remembers trying to leave.

"Only that whenever we came to the border and we went back," he recalled, saying it was scary for him.

Eventually, mother Ferida and the children made the trek through the mountains with hundreds of other refugees, leaving behind everything but the clothing on their backs.

"I told them not to bring anything, even your papers, because if someone from the government captures them, they will never know that they were getting out of Syria. I told them pretend you are visiting your relatives," Ahmad said.

Ferida recalled going through the mountains for a few days with the hundreds of other refugee families.

"Every single minute we heard the bombs and planes flying above us," she said. "It was chaos, people running through the mountains and we were scared.”

The family made it to Jordan where they stayed in one of the early refugee camps at the border. Ahmad went searching for them.

"When I saw my kids, I was really happy, but it was really hard," he said. "We couldn’t sleep, all the flies, it was dirty, we were in the street. And I was shocked how I can make my kids in this situation."

The family lived in a home in Jordan for a few years while they applied for relocation to the U.S.

"Not even half of those referred to the U.S. are accepted for relocation," said Immigration and Relocation Specialist for Catholic Charities Betsie Welle.

Welle said to be considered a refugee, people must be fleeing persecution. They have to apply for refugee status with the U.N.'s High Commission. Once designated as a refugee, they can be referred to a particular country and begin the lengthy process of applying to relocate there. Welle said if they could, most families would choose to stay in their home country.

"In fact many, if they had the opportunity, if their country were safe, they would not have left in the first place and they would go back," she said.

Welle said there are few refugees who have been settled into the panhandle. Catholic Charities only places people in towns were they have a relative or close friend.

Ahmad's family said while applying with the U.S. State Department in Jordan, they have to make many two-hour trips from their home to the capital of Amman.

"Every single interview was about 6 hours. They had to know everything about us, every single thing about our lives. They asked us how we got out of Syria. About our life and all the interviews were done individually. They didn’t bring just anyone to U.S.A. They were good with us. Blood tests even. If you had the flu you had to tell them before you came to the interview," Ahmad detailed.

It took both families years of interviews, medical exams and background checks before they learned they'd be moving to America.

"It was the funniest thing that happened to us," Ahmad said. "We were sitting, 300 families in one place, and all the cases were going to U.S.A. except our case. I told my wife, I was upset, 'we are not going to America.' After a little bit, they called them, said you are immediately going to the U.S."

Ferida said she was so happy she could do nothing but sit down.

Nasr becomes emotional as he recalls the day they were accepted for relocation.

"I will never forget that day," he said through tears.

His wife, Rehab, explains that the same exact day they were accepted, their daughter was in a motorcycle accident and was sent to the hospital.

While she recovered, the memories of that day are bittersweet.

Orientation classes for the families began and they prepared for travel.

"That's where we come in," Welle said.

She said the state department books travel and flights, that the families eventually have to pay back.

She said Catholic Charities is one of nine relocation agencies in the country. She learns about three weeks beforehand that a family is coming. For their first three months in the country, she helps the find housing, schools, food and clothing. After six months, the families must meet normal standards to receive government assistance. After a year, they must apply for residency. If they don't meet the requirements, they are able to be deported.

Welle said they're thankful for the help.

"They show me pictures of their houses and they cry because they want to go back," she said. "But it's death or life somewhere else. Those are the options."

Ahmad said the future for his family is in the United States. He wanted to relocate from Jordan because he wanted to be able to work to support his children. He said in Jordan, refugees normally remain on government assistance as second class citizens. He said he does not want to accept government money for the rest of his life and wants to be able to support his family independently.

He said he spends a lot of his time looking for work and relies heavily on his eldest son Amar, something his son says he is happy to do.

"Like if he wanna go apply for work, I'll go with him and translate because you have to make appointments and fill out papers. I helped him a lot," he said, adding that it made him feel proud of himself.

Despite what they've been though, the families consider themselves the lucky ones.

"It's really hard, may God help people in Syria, I just can’t imagine how they are alive now. I was lucky that I got here. I feel for them," Ahmad said. "Historically, war affects children but Syrian war has had the most effect on children. I consider the children there as mine, and I hope they will be safe."

"The most important thing is to stop the war in Syria," Nasr says. "After that we will [re]build Syria."

The families acknowledge the fear any Americans have about people like them coming to the United States.

"We are like any family," said Amar. "Like any other family."

"Syrian people are hard workers and love peace and love life," said Nasr. "I wish that peace be upon all the world."

Both families have high hopes and high expectations for their future lives in the U.S.

"They [America] took us and gave us a chance and brought us here," Ahmad said. "And we have to give back and I hope that my children will be doctors who help people and engineers who build this country. Even myself, If anything I can do for this country I will because we are really happy here."

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Dr. Yahia Rahim, Sarah Okasha, Maura Lapoff and Ahmad Ubeid-Allah contributed to this story.

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