Rama Al Najjar and her family left Syria more than four years ago to escape violence, but critics’ fears that refugees will commit similar violence have caused families like hers to be blocked from the United States.
In August 2015, Rama, 17, her parents and her two brothers were among the first Syrian refugee families to settle in Lexington. Now, they are struggling to understand recent federal actions to keep out people who are fleeing war.
An executive order announced Friday by President Donald Trump suspends the United States Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days and indefinitely bans the admittance of Syrian refugees.
Since the war in Syria began in 2011, Lexington has accepted 110 refugees from the battle-torn country, according to the Refugee Processing Center.
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“I don’t know why they don’t want (any) more refugees and Muslim people,” Rama said. “I don’t know why. I’m just confused.”
She said she wished she could explain to people that Syrian refugees are not in America to hurt anyone.
“They are going from their country because they have a war,” Rama said. “They have guns killing people (there) and when they come here they don’t do anything. They just want to live and (have) freedom and a better life.”
Rama’s mother, Helal Sousi, is worried that the executive order will make it impossible for her to return if she visits her two adult daughters , she said. One of her daughters now lives in Saudi Arabia and the other lives in Jordan.
Rama and her family are originally from Homs, which is where some of the fiercest fighting in Syria has taken place. She was only 12 at the time, but she remembers helping to bandage people who were shot in the streets.
In a 2015 interview, she told the Herald-Leader that even the stray cats in Homs seemed to scan the rooftops for snipers.
She still diligently follows the news to learn what is happening in Syria and said Tuesday that things are “so, so bad there.”
“They don’t have work, food,” Rama said. “Children, women are just gone. Why? It’s crazy.”
While the refugee program is suspended, the Trump administration plans to implement a more extreme vetting process for people trying to enter the United States.
Rama’s family lived as refugees in Jordan for three years before being placed in the United States. During their time in Jordan, the family went through a lengthy vetting process that included numerous interviews and checks, she said.
“They were asking about what happened to Syria, why do you want to go to United States ... and asking if we have any people in Syria,” Rama said. “Every two months to a month we (would) go to a meeting with an American girl or girl from Jordan.”
During each of the many interviews, people wrote down and checked what they were saying, Rama said.
Once the family was cleared, they learned they would be placed in Lexington.
“We are so happy right now,” she said.
In the year and five months since the family moved to Kentucky, they’ve made progress in learning English. At first Rama was nervous to try to speak with Americans and would often just say, “I’m sorry, no English.” But she’s gaining confidence.
“I’m talking a little. It’s not very good, but it’s better,” Rama said. Tuesday night she served as an interpreter between her family and the Herald-Leader.
Rama’s older brother, Salem, found work in a restaurant, and her mother and father have been able to take classes, she said. She’s excited that her younger brother, Abdul Kareem, 10, can go to school. Education opportunities were spotty while the family was living in Jordan, she said.
When the family arrived in Lexington, they knew no other Syrian refugees in the area. There are now about 20 Syrian families within walking distance of their apartment, Rama said.
She said some refugees have been nervous after Trump’s order, but her family has seen nothing but kindness from Lexington.
“We are so happy here. We don’t have any problems here in the United States,” Rama said. “Maybe (refugees) just feel scared right now, people feel scared of (the) president or the people (who are) saying ‘you’re not to be here in my country,’ but we don’t see that.”
Rama said she thinks people in Lexington know about what is happening in Syria and understand why her and her family are here.
“When we see American people, they just smile when they see us,” Rama said.