When Rama Al Najjar was 12 years old, she was bandaging bullet wounds and scrubbing blood from doorways so the blood wouldn’t attract Syrian military attention.
Now she’s 16, and she’s navigating a different challenge: settling into an American state where politicians have announced their intentions to keep out families like hers.
Kentucky has the eighth-highest population of Syrian refugees in the country, according to the Refugee Processing Center. Of 2,260 Syrian refugees living in the United States, 101 are in Kentucky: 11 in Lexington and 90 in Louisville.
Rama and her family are from Homs, Syria, where some of the fiercest fighting in the Syrian civil war has occurred. They moved to Lexington about three months ago from a refugee camp in Amman, Jordan, where they’d lived for about three years. Although the family’s new home brings relief from war, the threats and unease aren’t over, as Rama’s experiences show.
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‘Why are people afraid?’
Rama is confused about the recent backlash against Syrian refugees.
“I don’t know why people are afraid of refugees; we’ve escaped a war,” Rama said. “We just want to live in a free country. Why are people afraid of us?”
Politicians across the United States have announced plans to block Syrian refugees from entering the country in the wake of news reports that at least one man involved in November’s French terrorist attacks had posed as a Syrian transplant.
“The recent terrorist attacks in Paris serve as a warning to the entire civilized world that we must remain vigilant,” Gov.-elect Matt Bevin told The Associated Press recently. “This is why I am joining with other governors across the country in opposing the resettlement of Syrian nationals.”
States have little control. Once refugees arrive in the United States after “stringent security checks,” they are protected by federal law and the Constitution, a State Department representative said.
Refugees are required to apply to become legal permanent residents within their first year in the country. Local groups partnering with the State Department enroll refugee children in schools.
Refugees are among the most committed students, said Levi Evans, Rama’s English as a second language teacher at Bryan Station High School.
Evans has taught dozens of refugees from countries around the world.
“By letting students like these in that are smart and ready to work, we may be creating the next Einstein,” Evans said. “It would not surprise me a bit if when I’m old and dying of cancer or something that Rama would be the one operating on me.”
Students who are refugees are often so motivated because of the things they’ve been through, Evans said.
“It’s pretty amazing how resilient they are and how good they are,” Evans said. “You can’t find a better group to teach. These kids feel lucky to be here, lucky to learn.”
Everything is different
The transition was difficult for Rama and her family when they arrived, even before the attacks in Paris made people wary of Syrian refugees. None spoke English and they had little knowledge of American culture.
Rama is the only Bryan Station student who speaks Arabic. During her first two days at school, she couldn’t talk to anyone.
Rama felt alone, and she was afraid she wouldn’t learn because she couldn’t understand her teachers.
“I cried and cried and cried, because everything was different,” Rama said through a translator. “But the third or fourth day I started thinking, ‘Well, I have to adapt to this new environment; I have to learn.’”
That’s when Rama met special education teacher Shatha Shakir, who speaks Arabic.
She has helped Rama “a lot, a lot, a lot” as she works to understand her peers and teachers, Rama said.
Recently, the family suffered more upheaval. Rama’s father, Maher Al Najjar, suffered a heart attack.
He is recovering at home, but the medical crisis was a setback to his efforts to apply for jobs in Lexington. In Syria, he was a bus driver.
Meanwhile, he is studying English with the rest of the family.
Shakir said Rama is learning English rapidly and has started helping some Spanish speakers in her English as a second language class.
Education is a top priority for Rama, who wants to be a doctor.
That goal began on the streets of Homs where the civil war boiled over to envelope thousands of civilians.
The war was everywhere
When she was 12 years old, Rama dragged her bleeding neighbor, a boy her age, into her house so she could bandage him.
The boy had been shot in the leg by the Syrian military as he stood near his house, Rama said.
She cared for him until he could be taken to a clinic. He survived.
Not long after that, she helped a man who had been shot, she said.
Both times, she remembers scrubbing the blood from her family’s doorway so militants wouldn’t notice and target the family.
Rama worries that Syria doesn’t have enough doctors to help the injured. She remembers seeing people bleeding and dying without aid.
“It was no freedom, it was no mercy for the people over there,” Rama said.
The war was everywhere in Homs, she said. Even stray cats seemed to scan rooftops for snipers.
“We would imagine that at any time they would come slaughter us or burn our house,” Rama said.
Maher Al Najjar decided about three years ago to take Rama, her two brothers and her mother, Helal Sousi, out of Syria.
They made the six-hour journey to the Jordanian border, but the frightened family was turned away.
A guard told them they couldn’t pass because they were from Homs, the site of the most violent fighting, Rama said.
That night, a different guard let the family through the border, she said.
I don’t know why people are afraid of refugees; we’ve escaped a war. We just want to live in a free country.”
Rama Al Najjar, 16
Amman was comfortable for the first four months that her family stayed there, she said. There was plenty of food and water.
But the influx of Syrian refugees increased, she said. There weren’t enough supplies to go around, and her family wasn’t allowed to work for supplies. The Jordanian government doesn’t want refugees taking jobs that could go to its citizens.
If her father had been caught working, they would have been sent back to Syria, she said.
When they got to Amman, the family had immediately applied to be resettled, and after about three years, the United Nations Refugee Agency contacted her father about moving to the United States, Rama said.
The family began the months-long process of preparing to move to move to the United States.
A normal family
When Rama is at school, she seems quiet and reserved. At home, though, she is all smiles. She ruffled the hair of her younger brother, Abdul Kareem, 9, and sang Syrian songs with her family on a recent night. Her older brother, Salem Al Najjar, 22, works most nights at Oasis Mediterranean restaurant.
Kentucky Refugee Ministry volunteer Jessica Marafat, Shakir and her husband joined the family for a meal that included grape-leaf wraps, yogurt chicken and other Syrian dishes.
There are no pictures or decorations on the walls in the family’s small apartment off Eastland Parkway, but colorful Post-its hang all over the house, with words including “cabinet” or “chair” and an Arabic translation.
The Kentucky Refugee Ministry helps provide refugees from countries all over the world with basic necessities: housing, furniture and other assistance.
Marafat visits the family about three times a week and helps them learn English. She put up the Post-its, and she copies worksheets for the family to complete..
While the family sat in their living room after dinner with Marafat, Shakir and her husband, Rama helped her little brother understand the difference between “know” and “now.”
“Know, like, ‘I don’t know?’” she said, shrugging exaggeratedly.
“And now, like, ‘now!’” she continued, stomping her foot and pointing at the ground.
Abdul Kareem nodded but looked doubtful.
While Rama washed dishes, she sang Justin Bieber’s song Baby. She’s a fan.
Shakir, the teacher, tried to explain Thanksgiving and Black Friday to the family while everyone drank thick, earthy Syrian coffee. Sousi, Rama’s mother, asked several questions about the heavy shopping day, fascinated by the concept.
At 8 p.m., the family gathered to watch Rama and Abdul Kareem’s new favorite show, Walker, Texas Ranger. Abdul Kareem likes to demonstrate Walker’s roundhouse kick, and Rama said she likes the female cop.
At one point, the family cheered when Walker and another main character tackled a bad guy.
Rama said she and Abdul Kareem would like to take a karate class to learn to fight bad guys the way they do in the show.
The ones they left behind
Rama’s phone is full of pictures of her two sisters’ children.
One of her sisters now lives in Saudi Arabia, and the other is still in Amman, Jordan, she said.
“Big pretty eyes,” Rama said, pulling up a picture of one of her nieces. She laughed and puffed out her cheeks at the picture of another niece, a chunky baby.
Despite daily phone calls, Rama misses her sisters.
Rama’s mother smiled when she talked about Syria, the food and the culture. But when the conversation turned to the people still living there, she frowned and spoke grimly.
In Rama’s room, she has a picture from when she was 13. In it, she is in her school uniform with her best friend, Reem. Reem is still in Homs, but Rama uses online chat to talk to her every day, she said.
Syria hasn’t always been the violent place that it is now, Rama said. She remembers playing in the streets with Reem and her other friends when she was young.
When asked whether she wanted to return to Syria someday, Rama didn’t hesitate. She wants to go back.
“I still have hope,” she said.