Dec 13, 2016

Central Texans with Mideast Roots Help Refugees Build New Lives in Austin

Reporting Texas

Syrian refugee women learn sewing in a class organized by the Austin non profit called Syrian American Refugee Aid (SARA). Swati Narayanan/Reporting Texas

A Syrian refugee learns to sew in a class organized by Syrian American Refugee Aid. The class is intended to give the women a way to earn some money working from home. Swathi Narayanan/Reporting Texas

For Maya Hinedi, the situation in Syria hits home hard. She was 4 years old when her parents decided to leave the country in 1969 because of political unrest and move to Libya.

Settling in Libya was not easy for Hinedi. The people spoke a different dialect of Arabic, and she was bullied in school. “I remember coming crying home to my mother and not understanding the teachers or the kids,” she said.

Given her past, Hinedi, 51, who moved to Austin in 1993, feels a connection to the refugees now being displaced by civil war in Syria.

“We had to move countries; we had to start all over again. In a way, I know how hard this is,” she said.

In October 2015, Hinedi and a few Syrian families started a nonprofit called Syrian American Refugee Aid (SARA) to help newly arrived Syrian refugees find their way in Austin. It now includes a community of volunteers who help support families who have escaped war and now find themselves in an unfamiliar city.

Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, the United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that over 4 million people have fled to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Europe. President Obama agreed to allow 10,000 refugees into the U.S. The refugees have been resettled across the country.

Nearly 800 Syrian refugees have moved to Texas in the past year. There is no official data on how many Syrian refugees are in Austin, but according to Hinedi, at least 183 live here. Refugee Services of Texas, one of the two agencies responsible for bringing refugees to Austin, said it has resettled 161 Syrian refugees in Austin in the past year.

Coming to Austin has not ended refugees’ worries.

After raising concerns about whether refugees are being adequately screened, the state of Texas withdrew from the federal refugee resettlement program in September. The move does not prevent refugees from being resettled here, but it adds to their anxiety.

President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign promise that “If I win, they’re going back” amplifies the unease. Trump has not spelled out any policies that would affect Syrian refugees, but experts say the concern is justified.

“There is some concern that the federal government will not fund these (refugee resettlement) programs sufficiently,” said Denise Gilman, director of the immigration clinic at the University of Texas School of Law.

The work of Hinedi and others who have rallied to help refugees “is critically important, because it does clarify that the receiving community wants to integrate Syrian refugees and that helps to counter some alienating message…from state-level and national-level policy makers,” Gilman said.

Refugee Services and Caritas of Austin help resettle refugees in Austin. But given the number of Syrian families being resettled here Hinedi felt that the refugees would need all the help  they could get, which led to the formation of SARA.

Today, SARA provides a wide range of services to refugees, from providing cleaning supplies to finding furniture to helping new arrivals find their way around the city if they get lost.

On a Saturday afternoon in October, five Syrian women gathered for a sewing lesson organized by SARA at a small apartment in East Austin, furnished with a few chairs and tables and four sewing machines. The women chatted loudly in Arabic over the hum of the machines.

The idea behind the sewing class was to teach the women a skill that would enable them to make some money working from home. They don’t speak English and can’t afford to put their children in day care. Many have never worked before arriving in Austin.

All of them escaped the horrors of war in their country and are rebuilding their lives in Austin.

Manal Hameeda, originally from Damascus, moved to Austin five months ago with her husband and three children. She said she wants to learn sewing with the hope that she eventually could get a job and help pay the bills.

“They are in a place where they think they are safe. If we want our community to be successful, we need to help them,” Hinedi said.

Hinedi also works part-time at Anderson High School as a parent support specialist, helping Arabic-speaking refugees with enrollment and translation.

Hinedi said that the work SARA does is a team effort. Volunteers come from varied walks of life, from technology professionals to students such as Mai Barazi, who was born and reared in Syria. She moved to Houston as an undergraduate student and went back to Syria in 2000.

Barazi worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for eight years, writing recommendations for refugee resettlement. She recalls the unrest and violence in the days before she left Syria again in 2012. “We could hear the shooting and screaming from the U.N. building,” she said.

Today she is working towards her master’s degree in public leadership at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

Barazi and Hinedi are friends, and when Hinedi created SARA, Barazi decided to join the effort. She donates money and helps Syrian refugees by translating official communications such as emails from the Social Security Administration into Arabic. She also accompanies families to parent-teacher meetings.

Other Austinites are coming forward to help Syrian refugees.

Citrine Gharaowi grew up in Houston but would visit her family in Syria in the summer. The visits ended after the violence erupted in the country. Today, she studies at UT and is part of the Syrian People Solidarity Group that seeks to educate people about the plight of Syrian refugees.

She is also an intern at Refugee Services of Texas. As part of her internship, she helps with welcoming refugees and assisting them with navigating the city

Lubna Zeidan is originally from Lebanon. She moved to Austin in 2001. Zeidan is passionate about teaching and works for Interfaith Action of Central Texas as program director. Part of her job is to teach refugees English.

Having worked closely with refugees for many years, she feels that refugees are not people to fear.

“They are the first victims of terrorism and violence in their countries,” Zeidan said. “The people we see as refugees are victims, and we are blaming the victims..

Hinedi said successfully integrating the refugees into the community has great benefits.

“If we want our community to be successful, we need to help them,” Hinedi said. “Otherwise we will have dropouts and drug addicts. We will have uneducated kids in our community not knowing what to do.”