Images of bombed-out buildings in Aleppo, overloaded refugee boats and the weary faces of people in tent camps tell stories of desperation.
Nearly 97,000 of those desperate people overcame the physical and bureaucratic challenges to come to the United States between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31 last year.
Of those, 411 landed in Albuquerque, where they hope to start a new life, and most importantly, find a place where they can feel safe.
“People who have never seen war, or people being killed like I have – the suffering – they don’t understand why we come here,” said Olivier Kamndon.
He and his wife, their eight children and a grandchild arrived in late October. Speaking in French – he has just started to learn English – he tells of a seven-year saga.
In 2009, they fled the Central African Republic after a violent coup. They spent more than two months walking 1,000 kilometers across country from the capital Bangui to Chad. Along the way they had to forage for food, dodge encounters with snakes and face the ever present danger of militias. He saw dozens of men, women and children shot. Sometimes soldiers just threw the bodies in the river. Once, when he tried to rescue some small children from the military, they attacked him. He showed scars on his back.
When his wife or one of the children was too exhausted to walk, he carried them. He said he prayed to God for their safety.
When they reached Chad, they lived in a camp. Local security forces, and some from neighboring Sudan, would threaten them and demand money. It took five years before he and his family were approved for refugee status.
“I just wanted to be somewhere safe and peaceful,” Kamndon said. “In America, there is peace.”
He was a trader in his home country and is taking English classes several times a week so he can find a job.
Mohammed and his wife, Sumayah Ibrahim, and their four children arrived here three months ago. They are from Aleppo.
“There was fighting and bombing everywhere,” they said but they were reluctant to go into greater detail or be photographed.
For them, the approval process took five months. They worry for family members who are still in Syria. Border crossings into Turkey and Jordan have become too dangerous for them to escape, they said.
The family was among 46 Syrian refugees resettled in New Mexico in 2016.
Khadija Abdel Al Alwan, who lived in Syria until the fighting escalated, arrived in Albuquerque in October with her husband and nine children. They had flown from Lebanon to Germany to New York City, and from there made their way to Albuquerque.
Lutheran Family Services set them up with a home and furniture and other services, but Al Alwan said that they still struggle to pay rent for the modest home in the International District. Neither she nor her husband can speak English and neither have found a job to support themselves.
In Syria, Al Alwan said she tended to some cows in her hometown of Idlib while her husband worked at a stone factory in Lebanon.
Alwan said the war intensified in 2012. Fighters surrounding Idlib launched missiles into the city, and residents were left with no electricity, gas or running water. Al Alwan said her family paid $500 to have water delivered to them in a truck. And every time there was an explosion nearby, the family would have to move.
“The situation there is very difficult. We couldn’t live there,” Al Alwan said through a translator at her home on Texas SE last week.
In 2013 they moved to Lebanon, where Al Alwan said she was happiest. But a few years later, the Lebanese government said the family couldn’t stay there and that they would have to apply to be resettled through the United Nations. A lottery system landed them in the United States, Al Alwan said.
Her father died just 10 days before they left for America. Al Alwan said he was sick, and because her family in Syria was surrounded by fighting, they couldn’t get him to the hospital. He died at home.
Now her nine children go to school in Albuquerque and are slowly adjusting. But the transition has been hard, and Al Alwan said if it was possible she would move back to Lebanon to be closer to her family. She talks to them regularly via an internet calling service.
“They can’t travel, they can’t move, it’s dangerous for them,” she said. “They don’t go far. They stay together in the same place.”
The U.S. State Department’s Refugee Processing Center’s website showed from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2016, 411 of the 96,875 refugees who came to the U.S. were resettled in New Mexico. Albuquerque was their destination.
Getting this far requires enormous patience, perseverance and luck, said Jim Gannon, executive director of Catholic Charities of New Mexico. “It’s extremely hard and difficult.”
It can take up to several years to be approved for refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The process includes extensive background checks, validation procedures and screenings. If they are referred for settlement in the U.S., the final step involves an interview with a representative from the Department of Homeland Security before they can travel. At this point, their application can be denied and there is no appeal process.
“The refugee population is the most vetted to get into the U.S. If you were going to be a terrorist, this would not the avenue that you would take. The people we serve are fleeing the same terrorism we are afraid of,” said Tarrie Burnett, program director of Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains.
Catholic Charities and Lutheran Family Services are the two organizations contracted by the federal government to work with refugees in New Mexico. The U.S. State Department collaborates with national placement networks who work with agencies such as Catholic Charities at the local level to review refugee cases and match the particular needs of each incoming refugee with the resources available in a local community. If a refugee has relatives in the United States, he or she is likely to be resettled near or with them.
Gannon said historically there have been some flaws with coordination and some critics have said that the system is overtaxed because of the number of refugees and the dependence on local resources to provide support services. He said Canada has a system that offers much more comprehensive support to refugees.
Once they arrive in Albuquerque, refugees face new challenges. Language and transportation are the biggest. Services funded under the U.S. State Department’s Reception and Placement program include meeting refugees on their arrival, getting them housing, cultural orientation and help with getting employment. The program allots $1,000 per person, which can be spent on things like deposit for an apartment, rent, clothing and other necessities.
“We try to get donations of materials and personal hygiene items to avoid using their money for daily necessities, so they can have it for rent and the major items,” Gannon said. The federal government also requires that the state Department of Health provide refugees with a health screening within 90 days of their arrival.
“We review their medical history, including chronic health conditions that may have been identified before entering the country. We also check them for infectious diseases such as HIV, STD, TB, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C,” said department spokesman Paul Rhien.
Catholic Charities and Lutheran Family Services assign a case manager to each refugee family or individual. The case manager helps them enroll in programs administered by the state Human Services Department that they may be eligible for, such as Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which provides cash assistance for clothing, utilities and housing costs, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps).
The Resettlement and Placement program support only lasts for three months. After that, about 25 percent of those who arrive are eligible for another program that provides limited services focused on getting them employed for a few more months. Lutheran Family Services also offers some case management for up to five years, but no material assistance.
Understanding the many require-ments of assistance programs is especially difficult because they are often communicated in English or Spanish, and most refugees don’t speak either language, said Celia Yapita, program director for Catholic Charities center for refugee settlement and support.
Transportation is another big challenge. Navigating the city’s bus system to get to the required locations to sign up for services or take English classes can be intimidating and take hours.
“Folks have to go through a very steep learning curve very quickly,” Gannon said. “The expectations are very high for people who have gone through harrowing experiences. Some of the worst known to mankind.”
Beating the odds
Claudia Adame has heard many horror stories from the refugee families she met through outreach work for her church, New Beginnings Church of God at Carlisle and Montgomery. One woman told Adame her husband was threatened and killed by the Taliban. She and her teenage boys escaped that night.
Adame said the woman is still grieving over the loss of her husband and misses her friends and country.
“These are very lonely people,” Adame said.
Despite all the odds, the refugees persevere. Frozan Popal, 22, her mother and four siblings arrived in October 2015. They had been living in Kabul, Afghanistan, where she attended school and learned English. As the situation became more dangerous, they moved to Peshawar, Pakistan. Life was hard there, Popal said, but her ability with languages proved useful. She taught Pashto, the local language, Dari, her language, and English to preschoolers.
When they came to Albuquerque, Lutheran Family Services helped the family settle in an apartment. They also helped Popal and her sister write résumés to find employment.
Popal works for Lutheran Family Services as an interpreter for new refugees. She obtained a driver’s license, bought a car and earned a Certified Nursing Assistant qualification. She works on Sundays at an assisted living facility. She’s also studying for an associate degree at Central New Mexico Community College. One day, she hopes, the family can get their own house.
“At first it was really hard,” she said. “But I love living here. It’s my country. I love it and I hope nothing bad happens and all is peace.”
Journal Staff Writer Nicole Perez contributed to this report.