Alexis Jade Ferguson
Syrian refugees travel miles across the desert to escape the attacks from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, leaving behind their family, friends and home. In an effort to help them on their long journeys to normalcy, sophomore President of the American Teens for Syrian Refugees club Nawal Keddo hosted a bicycle drive on Saturday, Dec. 10, to gather donations for the 150 to 200 refugee families within the San Diego County.
“My dad already left a legacy of his own. These children, who we’ve never met before, know his name because he gave a bicycle to their friend. People who he doesn’t know [him] call him to say ‘Please bring a bike to our family,’ or they call him about their concerns,” N. Keddo said.
This was not N. Keddo’s first involvement in a charity event for the refugees that need help adjusting to a new country. On Wednesday, Dec. 8, during one of BVH’s Food Fairs, N. Keddo and other members of the American Teens For Syrian Refugees club sold Mediterranean food to fundraise for their cause. The Keddo family also visited the Villa Embasadora Motel in El Cajon on Nov. 23 to deliver turkeys for the refugee families who were staying in the motel.
“It was wise to put these refugees in El Cajon because there’s already an Iraqi community. It is the best bet for them, since there’s Arabic-speaking people,” N. Keddo said. “The majority of the families rely on financial aid and charity sponsors to support them with donations. The refugee families at this motel have been in the United States for over three weeks and are trying to adapt to a new way of life.”
Jordan, the neighboring country to Syria, brings in many refugees fleeing the violence in their mother country. 17-year-old refugee Mohamad Alrahmoun spoke about his experience transitioning from Syria to Jordan. The Keddo family served as mediators when translating the interviews from Arabic to English.
“There was a border patrol and we were trying to get to Jordan. We had to cross past the Syrian government forces and not be killed. I was crossing mountains with my half-paralyzed grandma in a wheelchair and my one year old brother. I remember my mom was carrying my brother and she fell down and broke her leg. This happened at the beginning of the trip, so we still had to make that trip but we got attacked by Syrian forces and had to run away from guns pointed at our heads. It took us four days to cross, that was the most terrible experience. I was terrified, at that time I was still 13, so I was still a child,” Alrahmoun said.
Many youth who looked for safety were unaware of the persecution they would face from the Jordanian Educational Administration. Many refugee children and teens experienced verbally and physically abusive teachers who imposed racial prejudice upon Syrian students as opposed to the Jordanian natives.
“In Jordan, I could not go to school for a year. Here, I can go to school with my friends. In Jordan, we could not work, own a car or have have a home. It was very hard for my family and friends—It’s hard on everyone. But here, my father can work, we can have a car. If my sister wants shoes, she can have shoes,” 14-year-old refugee Alisar Bazarto said.
Five and a half million Syrian children are currently in need of humanitarian aid. About three million youth seeking refuge in neighboring countries are unable to attend school on a regular basis since many educational institutions were transformed into shelters, military bases or destroyed by Iranian forces. N. Keddo works to help teens who dealt with these struggles at a young age. She believes that her background as part-Syrian contributed to her motives for aiding refugees.
“The whole idea behind this cause is finding common humanity. This cause has become close to me personally,” N. Keddo said. “My family suffers because they don’t have the freedom to go outside without endangering themselves. They don’t have the freedom to speak out against the government on the Internet or even about their basic needs; they don’t have running water every hour of the day nor electricity.”
Cities like Aleppo are threatened by suicide bombers, armoured vehicles and rocket artillery. Syrian government military forces drop chlorine-filled barrel bombs in local districts, forcing many civilians to wear oxygen masks and attack hospitals already treating victims of the bombings. N. Keddo stated that part of her family, who have found asylum in Kuwait, Syria or have fled to Greece, is currently living in this reality.
“I still have family in Damascus, Syria, so the war is very close to my heart. I think that influenced why I help out. Since the war started, it opened my eyes to other things going on in the world and I realized that they were bigger than me. Since I was 11, I knew I wanted to get involved with political activism but this is the closest I can get,” N. Keddo said.
Among the youth, many of them aim to finish high school and pursue professional careers. Likewise, most of the families want to establish the same economic stability they experienced in their native country.
“My husband had his own clothing store, he went to his work, came back and we had a very easy, good life. It would be the best idea to resume my old life if it was safe enough that I could go back to my house,” refugee and mother Taghaleed Umar Shubak said.
Although many have expressed feeling safer in the U.S., they are still facing challenges different than those they encountered in Syria. The involvement of community members in San Diego has made a difference for many, but not all of their problems have been fixed.
“There is a big need for volunteers to take people to doctor’s appointments, to take people on rides until they get their transportation problem resolved, and enrollment in schools. These people do not have anything and they are starting from scratch. They need a mentor that can take them around and show them the way. I am pleading that the people that have connections with some vacancies for residents to contact the Syrian refugee network. We have about 200 families, we can use all the help that we can get,” A. Keddo said.
Undeterred by the different challenges in their new country, the refugees are in the process of adapting to a new culture during the holiday season.
“Most of the refugees are doing their best to learn English and to become integrated into American society, but I have to really emphasize that we have to give them a hand. We need to reach out to them, teach them about Thanksgiving and Christmas, to be a good citizen and to participate in all the work that is needed to help others. There are a lot of good people here in San Diego that are willing to pitch in. I thank you for the opportunities and for making people aware of the Syrian crisis all over the world,” A. Keddo said.