Refugees Who Fled Aleppo Adapt to a New Life in Phoenix

  • The Brimos left a charnel house for Sunbelt subdivisions
  • For refugees who navigate hurdles, the U.S. lets them thrive

Omar Brimo wants the Arabic proverb to come true in Phoenix: “Once you live among people for 40 days, you are one with them.”

In Aleppo, Syria, his Kurdish family fled civil war. In Turkey, he failed to find a niche in an economy overrun with refugees. But seven months after Brimo, his wife and four of his children landed in Arizona, he has two Kia vans, a job as an electrician and a financial foothold.

Brimo family at home in Phoenix.

Brimo family at home in Phoenix.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

“In the U.S., you come and you get a job and you work,” Brimo, 43, said through an Arabic translator while sandwiched on a living-room sofa between his wife, Fatima Mohamad, and 6-year-old son Ibrahim. “You participate and you take a role in building the economy.”

In an election year that has made refugees symbols of foreign danger, the Brimos’ experience shows that if they can navigate a path of escape, security screenings, political rhetoric and cultural barriers, the U.S. economy can assimilate them efficiently. Where Germany has been overwhelmed, the U.S. has been selective. Despite a surge in Syrian admissions under President Barack Obama, the refugees’ numbers in the U.S. are tiny, but they represent a fresh pool of workers in a graying U.S. population, and aspiring homeowners in a still-recovering housing market.

In some ways, the U.S. is as eager to embrace the labor as these Syrian refugees, about 12,000 this year, are to provide it. Seven years after the recession ended, employers increasingly complain that skilled workers are hard to come by. A greater challenge lies ahead as an army of baby boomers, those aged 52 to 70 years in 2016, shifts from work to retirement.

Brimo kids do their homework.

Brimo kids do their homework.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

“Employers look to us as an employee pool they can rely on,” said Donna Magnuson, executive director of the Phoenix office of the International Rescue Committee, one of nine federally contracted resettlement agencies. “We’re not asking them to employ poor refugees. We’re bringing a product to them.”

New Neighbors

In Phoenix, a metropolis of about 1.6 million, a services economy especially desperate for labor and a coalition of thriving resettlement agencies have made the area a top-tier destination for refugees. There are barriers: Brimo’s only regret about taking his first U.S. job is that he had to end his two months’ attendance at IRC’s English classes. And Mohamad, 39, fears that homeownership will be elusive on just one income. Both are realistic about the challenges of recreating their pre-war life in Syria. In Aleppo, where Brimo had driven a taxi and worked as an electrician, they lived comfortably and owned their own home.

Now, they live in the sprawling Harbor Ridge apartment complex, around the corner from a Whataburger restaurant, the Glockmeister gun shop and Jerry’s Golf Balls. The living room of their two-bedroom unit boasts a big-screen television and three sofas.

Just after dusk on the unusually warm October night, Brimo, slender and mustachioed, kicks the tires on the second of his two Kia vans. He had fretted that the first, on which he clocks miles shuttling to and from work sites, could one day give him trouble. He picked up the second “super cheap” because it survived an accident and lacked air conditioning. Using savvy and thrift learned during his eight years as a taxi driver, he bought a set of $18 junkyard tires and rehabilitated his backup vehicle.

As the four children trickled onto the outdoor stairwell, Brimo said his wife and 17-year-old son Samer have their learner’s permits to drive.

Ravaged City

Phoenix is still fresh, but Brimo counts his blessings against starker alternatives: life in his obliterated hometown, or the transient existence the family endured in Turkey for about 15 months.

Aleppo was a prime battlefield in conflict born from a government crackdown on pro-democracy protests during the Arab Spring, becoming ground zero for President Bashar al-Assad’s fight with the Islamic State. Brimo said they escaped when the city was being bombed daily and took shelter in a country town. Soon, supplies were cut off by roving government and opposition forces. His children went hungry for days on end.

“There was no price for human life -- just killing everybody,” he said. “I would go from my city to the town and I’d just see dead bodies on the road, and no one can even stop or do anything.”

Turkey, where they arrived with only their clothes, was hosting more than 2.5 million displaced people at the end of 2015, according to Amnesty International. The family appreciated the government’s offer of safety, but while Kurds like Brimo have been stalwart U.S. allies, they are a minority in the country. Brimo’s rent was higher than that of native Turks, and his electrician’s salary was lower.

The family embarked on a year-and-a-half-long mission to secure refugee status, which included interviews with U.S. government officials to detail relationships, educational background and Brimo’s mandatory military service. Eventually, they earned their tickets to Phoenix, leaving behind a married daughter in Syria.

Early Aid

Brimo has been finding his place in the U.S. economy ever since the family landed at Sky Harbor International in April. A female IRC case worker helped carry luggage. Brimo was surprised because "in my country ladies and girls don’t do the hard work.”

IRC workers develop years-long relationships with their clients, offering English classes, employment assistance and job training and childcare. Based in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale, the Brimos’ local office also aids refugee entrepreneurs and homeowners. It has helped 336 families buy property since 2003.

Brimo is reluctant to rely on the organization even to deliver aid granted to all U.S. refugees. The family received $3,011 in cash that helped purchase the first Kia, and IRC also paid for two months’ rent, as well as other goods like a cell phone, bus passes and a booster seat.

IRC referred Brimo to a former client from Iraq who is a supervisor at Austin Electric Services, which offers home wiring renovations and repairs. Brimo’s position as an electrician is similar to his Syrian job, even though it kept him from language training that would allow him to better communicate with, among others, his children’s teachers.

Souzan Brimo holds a drawing.

Souzan Brimo holds a drawing.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

A year after their arrival, the Brimos will be required to apply for permanent residence. Government assistance will fade -- a testament to the U.S. system’s emphasis on self-sufficiency, unlike in Europe and Canada, with its private sponsorship of refugee families. Brimo’s siblings are living in Germany, where government services are generous while opportunities for work licenses are not -- exacerbating residents’ anger and resentment toward all migrants.

Both parents say their success will largely be measured by their children. Samer has visions of being a dentist, but for now enjoys tinkering with computers. Fourteen-year-old Souzan, gesturing in the air like a painter, loves to draw, but sees herself as a pediatrician someday.

Asked for their favorite part about the first six months in the U.S., the children, who also include Maher, 10, and Ibrahim each answer “school.” They revel in the library, where they pick out CDs and books to immerse themselves in English.

Samer’s friends use body language, show him pictures or punch phrases into phone applications to translate messages. Souzan is keen to prove how quickly she can learn English, having learned Arabic as a second language in her Kurdish-speaking family.

Fatima Mohamad shoots a basketball.

Fatima Mohamad shoots a basketball.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Mohamad, Brimo’s wife, said she thinks a lot about buying a house. It could take longer than the Brimos would like. The homeownership rate among foreign-born Americans in Arizona hovers between 33 percent and 37 percent for the first nine years after their arrival in the U.S., before climbing to 61 percent for those in the state 10 years and longer, an October report from real-estate website Trulia shows.

Angry Static

And even amid the positive energy the family members say they feel locally, Brimo knows the debate over refugees has been tense. In a presidential campaign of polar opposites, the issue has opened a yawning divide.

Republican Donald Trump, who delivered an immigration speech at the Phoenix Convention Center, has pledged to suspend admissions from Syria on his first day in office and to institute screening to ensure that those entering “share our values and love our people.” Democrat Hillary Clinton has supported an increase in Syrian refugee admissions to as much as 65,000.

Brimo said he hopes that candidates understand that “when I came here, I always felt like I belong to this country. I have so much faith in this country, and I hope this never changes.” Under U.S. law, the president makes the final call on how many refugees will be admitted. When Obama announced his fiscal 2016 goal for admissions, American voters opposed the initiative, 53 percent to 41 percent, according to a September 2015 Quinnipiac poll. Fifty-eight percent said the refugees would threaten U.S. security.

Phoenix might seem an odd place to roll out the welcome mat. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, 84, who has won re-election five times, is known for raids on Hispanic immigrants and battles with the Justice Department over racial profiling. But other political and economic factors favor refugees in the area, which has one of the country’s highest concentrations of Syrians, taking in 605 in fiscal 2016 alone.

Bucking the stance of their party’s nominee, Senator John McCain and U.S. Representative Trent Franks have been advocates, with McCain encouraging businesses to hire refugees. Mayor Greg Stanton, a Democrat, emphasized his city’s support for refugees when Republican Governor Doug Ducey declared after the Paris attacks in November 2015 that refugee admissions should cease.

The local economy also is favorable. Service jobs are plentiful, including entry-level work in education, health, and especially construction. Home health-aide work opportunities in the U.S. will balloon in the decade through 2022 amid an aging population, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show. That’ll be a boon to foreign-born workers, who already occupy one in four of those jobs, according to a September report from the Partnership for a New American Economy.

Brimo knows what a functioning economy should look like. Before Aleppo became a pallid landscape of rubble, it boasted an ancient market. He remembers the miles-long avenue of stalls featuring handmade goods and jewelry, the slowly shifting throngs in the shadow of a 13th-century castle.

Asked whether that Aleppo will return, Brimo answers: “I wish. But I think it’s very difficult.”

They’ll make new traditions here, Brimo says. Souzan enters the living room with Arabic coffee for all, a taste of home foraged amid the strip malls and subdivisions.

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