How One Central Valley City Became a Haven For Syrian Refugees

In spite of the Trump administration’s restrictions on migrants, the Bay Area and Turlock are now home to thriving communities of new Americans from Syria.

“We left everything behind,” Hassan Abdullah says. “We couldn’t get anything out. Just me, my wife, and my kids.”

Speaking Arabic through a family friend who interprets, Abdullah recalls the hellish conditions that forced him and his family to flee Syria: barrel bombs, sniper fire, retribution killings. The overall mayhem made living in their homeland intolerable, and they now live in an apartment in the Central Valley city of Turlock. Abdullah and his wife, Hasnaa Shobak, can trace their lineage in Syria for countless generations, but the ongoing Syrian Civil War has created what the United Nations calls one of the worst refugee crises since World War II. More than 6 million Syrians are classified as internally displaced, scattered to parts of Syria they never intended to live. Another 6 million have crossed over Syria’s borders to become external refugees. All told, more than half the pre-war population of 21 million people have been uprooted.

In December 2013, Abdullah, Shobak, and their two young boys — then ages 2 and 3 — escaped across the long border with Turkey with virtually nothing, not even photos or other mementos of their lives in the northern city of Aleppo, where Abdullah worked in a factory making fabrics for couches, curtains, and carpets.

After months of being on edge, the family’s exodus was prompted by the bombing of their neighbor’s house — likely by Syrian government forces as they wrested Aleppo from rebel control. Abdullah’s family decided they could no longer risk staying in Syria.

“We couldn’t sleep. We couldn’t sit outside and feel safe. We couldn’t go shopping and feel safe. It was a tough life,” Abdullah says. “You couldn’t even feel safe sleeping because any minute you’d see a house being bombed. We were scared that the walls we were sleeping next to would be bombed. The safest place in the house was the bathroom, which had thick walls. We’d sleep there. All four of us.”

They were among the fortunate ones. After living in rough Turkish conditions for two years, their bid for U.S. asylum was granted, and they arrived in Turlock on Jan. 6, 2016 — selected by the International Rescue Committee, a New York-based humanitarian group, one of many organizations working with U.S. government agencies to resettle refugees in the United States.

Turlock — about two hours’ drive from San Francisco — is a city of 70,000 people. When Abdullah’s family arrived, none of them spoke English. They knew no one. And Abdullah, 36, was in a challenged physical state: He had kidney failure — an issue that arose in Turkey, where he received negligible medical attention, and which required an eight-day hospitalization when he first got to Turlock.

“I’m lucky to be alive,” he says.

Here there are more rules and laws,” Abdullah says. “I wish there were the same in Syria. Photo by Jonathan Curiel.

Other Syrians who escaped the war preceded the family to Turlock, but few Syrians have arrived here — or anywhere in the United States — ever since. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. admitted more than 20,000 Syrian refugees as part of an extensive effort to let in people fleeing war-torn areas, with Obama saying the issue was a test of the world’s “common humanity.”

Abdullah’s family was part of that wave of new Americans. But it was the last big wave, owing to President Trump’s travel bans and other efforts to stem refugee admissions. Two weeks ago, the State Department announced further reductions in the total number of refugees allowed into the United States, capping the number at 30,000 for the coming fiscal year. More than 25 million people worldwide live as refugees, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. So a country that’s long considered itself an immigration melting pot has now set a refugee quota of around 0.1 percent.

Many conservatives support President Trump’s narrow refugee policy, agreeing that the best way to help Syrians is to fund refugee efforts — for food, housing, and medical needs — inside Syria and in neighboring countries like Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, which have collectively taken in millions of Syrian refugees.

But human-rights groups say the United States can and should take in many more refugees — including from Syria — because of America’s outsized role in shaping global affairs and helping to create conditions that caused the refugee flood. At the start of the Syrian war in 2011, for example, the U.S. supported extremist rebels that morphed into ISIS, the fundamentalist group that later took over much of Syria’s and Iraq’s territory, exacerbating Syria’s refugee exodus. Before that, the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq — prompted by since-discredited evidence that Baghdad had weapons of mass destruction — destabilized the region and laid the groundwork for ISIS’ rise in Syria and Iraq. There was also Obama’s 2012 “red line” retreat, in which he threatened to retaliate against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons — yet didn’t, a move that led to even more violence and more refugees.

The White House did not respond to SF Weekly’s request for comment on its Syria refugee policies.

“The course they’re on is decimating a program that has been core to American values,” says Karen Ferguson, director of the International Rescue Committee’s Northern California offices, which has placed many of the new Syrian refugees who now call the greater Bay Area their home. “There was no need for there to have been a change other than the current administration chose to change.”

Turlock’s affordability makes it an ideal place to resettle Syrian refugees relative to the Bay Area. Photo by Jonathan Curiel.

Turkey is home to more than 3 million Syrian refugees, including the rest of Abdullah’s extended family: his mother, father, brothers, and sisters. He can’t bring them to Turlock.

“I asked,” he says of his request to the U.S. government, “but they’re not bringing many Syrians here. I’m happy that I had the opportunity to come here before Trump stopped everything.”

Shobak has family who still live in Damascus, Syria’s capital. She calls them regularly on the phone. She and Abdullah still follow news reports of Syria’s civil war, including reports that President al-Assad and his military cohort — Russian soldiers, Iranian guards, Hezbollah mercenaries, and others — are close to pushing through the rebels’ last strongholds on Syrian land near the Turkey border.

In some ways, the Abdullahs are still in Syria’s war zone, still thinking about the horrors that beset their country of origin. But they’re safely in America now. Three months ago, they welcomed a new son to their lives: Muhammad Noor Abdullah. Their eldest boys — Abdulrahman, 8, and Ahmed Alameen, 7 — speak especially good English. The boys don’t remember the details of their lives in Syria. They don’t remember being driven from Aleppo to the border with Turkey. They don’t remember lurching across Syria’s border with Turkey on a cold, winter’s morning.

“No, I was too little,” says Abdulrahman, sitting on a living-room couch with his brother.

According to a major 2017 study by the New American Economy, a bipartisan research group, refugees in the United States become solid contributors to the U.S. economy and its tax base. In 2015, the group says, almost 2.3 million refugees who’ve immigrated to the United States since 1975 earned more than $77 billion in household income — and paid more than $20 billion in taxes.

Their escape helped counterbalance sobering numbers: At least 400,000 Syrians have died since the conflict began in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring protests, and at least 8,000 have perished crossing the Mediterranean Sea or in an attempt to flee via Syria’s land borders. More sobering numbers: From Oct. 1, 2017 to Aug. 31, 2018, the United States let in fewer than 100 Syrians.

The IRC’s Ferguson says that Syrians, like other refugees, find their economic footing because they possess traits that many people associate with Americans — and they often become entrepreneurs.

“To become the type of person who crosses a border that way — I’d say, generally speaking, most refugees possess extreme resourcefulness, adaptability, problem-solving skills, a willingness to be incredibly persistent, and to be able to endure a lot of hardship,” Ferguson says. “They have a lot of hope, even in the midst of dire situations. They’re fighters. These are people who — no matter what — they’re going to figure out a way for their family to survive. Tenacity. That’s the word I’d use for refugees.”

Still, Ferguson says, it’s unfair to expect all refugees — whether from Syria or another country — to follow a trajectory that easily equates to success.

“Some refugees have been so damaged, and they have less resilience left,” she says. “And others have amazing strength to adjust to starting life all over again. The Syrian families are the same range. Some are precarious. And some are scraping by. And to some I say, ‘How do you have that incredible spirit and hope and zest for life after everything you’ve gone through?’ I see that in every group I’ve worked with, and I absolutely see that in the Syrians that I’ve been honored to welcome here.”

Turlock is an ideal place to resettle Syrian refugees in Northern California because it’s easier economically to live there. Rents are cheaper than in the immediate Bay Area, for example, with some two-bedroom apartments in Turlock costing less than $1,000 a month. Generally speaking, refugees resettled in the United States get enough money to afford at least two months’ rent, and they’re enrolled in medical-assistance and food-assistance programs.

“We have four offices in Northern California — Oakland, San Jose, Sacramento, and Turlock — and Oakland and San Jose are bad fits for a family because it would be extremely expensive,” Ferguson says. “By default, Turlock is a good site for a family in Northern California. It has housing in the affordable range for a family who’s moving here without connections. It has strong partnerships with the school districts, with the benefits offices, and with employers to help families move forward and thrive. Sacramento is also a good site.”

About 10 new Syrian families live in Turlock. More Syrians used to live there, but they subsequently moved to Fresno, where there is a much larger Syrian and emigré community, and a more visible community of mosques. Abdullah and his family like Turlock, which also has a population of Assyrian-Americans — people descended from longstanding Christian communities who emigrated from Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Abdullah and his family say Turlock reminds them of Syria, but that “over here it’s warmer than there.” As Abdullah spoke on a weekend afternoon, it was 102 degrees outside.

“I like everything here except for the language,” Hasnaa says in Arabic. “English learning is hard,” Hassan Abdullah agrees, also in Arabic.

For fun, the two older boys play tennis, while Abdulrahman also plays basketball. The family lives close to a Walmart and to smaller stores that cater to Turlock’s Middle East community, selling chickpeas and other Middle Eastern foods. Hassan Abdullah goes to a mosque every day. As his family walks around town, they see things that remind them of home. One street, for example, is named “Minaret,” after the towers that are an intrinsic architectural feature of mosques. The American flags that fly from many Turlock homes also feel familiar and “normal, since in Syria, everyone did the same thing — they had flags and signs of their own country,” Hassan Abdullah says. “Turkey was the same. Here it’s no different. Here there are more rules and laws. I wish there were the same in Syria. There are no rules and laws.”

One of the family’s best friends is Kiffah Aziz, a Turlock resident of Palestinian descent who befriended Hassan Abdullah and Hasnaa Shobak from almost the moment they arrived. Aziz and her 17-year-old son, Amir — who both did the English-Arabic translation for SF Weekly as the paper interviewed Hassan Abdullah and Hasnaa Shobak — are a big reason the Abdullahs feel at home in Turlock. The two families often have dinner together, and their kids go to the park together and do other outdoor activities.

“I try to make them feel they have family around them,” Kiffah Aziz says. Having grown up in Illinois, she moved to Turlock in the 1990s after getting married, and first met the family when Hassan was hospitalized and the rest of his family were placed in a motel — and didn’t know where Hassan was. He didn’t know where they were, either.

Shobak “didn’t know how to get to him or talk to him,” she adds. “After she got to know us, we would take her to her husband. You want to show them that they can’t give up. They left the war, and there’s still hope to move on, and that they have family wherever they go. You want to motivate them to find a job and to move on. And that there’s a future for their kids. Their kids are their first priority.”

Still, Shobak hopes that, one day in the future, the family can return to Syria, if only to visit. “I’d go in a heartbeat” to Damascus, she says. “We’re praying for it.”

Abdullah, though, says he can’t imagine ever returning. “There’s no need to go back to Syria,” he says. “There’s no hope.”

There was also no hope in Turkey, where his children received minimal education and which mirrored their situation in Syria. Now, Hassan Abdullah hopes his three sons become doctors or electronic engineers in America.

“I’m OK with that,” Abdulrahman says from the living-room couch, as his youngest brother, Muhammad Noor Abdullah, cries on his mom’s lap on another couch.

“Noor” means “light” in Arabic. The name is a powerful statement of how embedded Hassan Abdullah, Hasnaa Shobak, and their family already feel in the greater Bay Area and the United States.

“I named him,” Abdullah says of his youngest son, “because I like that name — and hopefully, the light will be on the other side of the tunnel for us.”

Jonathan Curiel has covered art and culture for SF Weekly since 2010.

See more from SF Weekly‘s cover story on Syrian refugees:

Aero and the Blind Marathoner
Laurel Hilbert arrived in the U.S. speaking no English and knowing no one. Five years later, the 22-year-old native Syrian went from homelessness to running a nonprofit, with his seeing-eye dog at his side.

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