No matter how hard he tries, Nemer, a 22-year-old Syrian immigrant living in New Jersey, cannot shake the vision from his mind: 60 people huddled in a tin cell made for 10 out in the Syrian desert. They take it in turns to sleep on the floor. At night the desert is so cold the metal is like ice; by morning the prison is an oven.
This was the fate of a friend jailed for 18 months for publishing an anti-regime poem on Facebook. ‘Like this they torture you for 24 hours,’ says Nemer (who is using a pseudonym out of concern for his family’s safety). ‘But when a friend calls me to say, “Just forget about Syria, forget about going back,” it’s like pulling one of my nerves. It’s like holding my heart and taking it out of my body to tell me I’m not going back to Syria.’
This internal conflict is not unique to Nemer. He is part of a small but fractured community of Syrian refugees living in the New York area who are struggling to adapt to the difficulties of an immigrant lifestyle, while Syrians back home face the much harsher realities of war, torture and death. The guilt is all-consuming because their difficulties – getting documentation, working 60-hour weeks, adapting to the culture – pale in comparison.
‘You feel not just guilt but that you’re a horrible person. I mean, what can I do? Should I pack my bags? If I don’t contribute to my country what have I done?’ the finance manager from Damascus asks. ‘I protested a couple of times, that’s it? OK…then what? Those people risked their lives. It’s different.’
Since the revolution began in Syria three years ago, at least 130,000 people have been killed and 2.2 million have fled the chaos, according to UN estimates. Syria’s neighbouring countries Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan have absorbed the majority of refugees, while those with money, education or family connections can afford to venture further afield. Getting into the US as a Syrian refugee is tough, however. Since the civil war began, only 90 have been officially admitted.
‘It’s like holding my heart and taking it out of my body to tell me I’m not going back to Syria’
In August 2012, Nemer visited the US on a tourist visa to avoid the compulsory military draft. He never returned to Syria. ‘I told them I was here for tourism until things settled in my country,’ he says. Immigration officers bought the white lie. Not long after, he became one of around 1,000 Syrians already in the US to receive Temporary Protected Status from the government, allowing him to work.
It is not, he stresses, the same as asylum. He remains fiercely patriotic, singing the Syrian national anthem on the subway to work every morning. ‘If I don’t keep this connection I will lose it. I don’t want to reach a point in my life when I say I am only an American, because I’m Syrian. I want to return to build my country.’
For now he works as a finance executive while his friends fight in the Free Syrian Army; he is often the butt of their jokes. One day he spoke to a friend who had fought for both the regime and the rebels, before escaping to Turkey. ‘He called me a “wuss”. He said to me: “I’ve done my part towards the revolution, risked my life on multiple occasions, and I’m not willing to do it anymore. It’s time for you guys to come and do it.”’
For Marwa, a 26-year-old Syrian living in Queens, the flak from friends has taken a psychological toll. ‘You are always being accused of not knowing what is going on,’ she explains. ‘Because you’re not living there, you’re not suffering.’ Marwa came to the US in August 2011 to study as a Fulbright scholar and now, like Nemer, works in finance. At first she did not want to leave Syria, not because of the revolution, but because her father had passed away the year before. ‘I was so desperate and depressed,’ she says. ‘I didn’t want to leave my country because I felt like I had lost everything at that time.’
Against the regime from the outset, she was initially careful about broadcasting her opinions, as members of her father’s family were pro-regime. But in May 2012 the conflict became personal, when a friend was killed by a sniper in Homs. ‘This brought a change for me,’ she says. ‘I lost a friend. It could have been me.’
‘You are always being accused of not knowing what is going on. Because you’re not living there, you’re not suffering’
Marwa turned to Facebook to vent her frustration. ‘Every day my Mom would call me and say, “Stop doing whatever you’re doing…You don’t understand, I’m not going to be safe if you keep doing this.”’ Her mother stopped speaking to her for two months. Yet Marwa continued to post on Facebook under an alternative account. Then one day she received an ominous message from a friend. ‘If you keep doing this, trust me, the minute you come into Syria we’re going to kill you,’ the message read. Marwa refused to back down and applied for asylum.
Potential US involvement in Syria poses a different dilemma for Patricia, a 25-year-old Christian and a supporter of the regime, who fled the war in 2012. She spent hours online watching Lebanese coverage of the August chemical attacks, which asserted that the rebels staged the whole episode. Whether or not President Bashar Assad’s side committed the atrocity, Patricia has her own image of Syria, which she is unwilling to let go. ‘Every government makes its own mistakes but under the old government my life was perfect. I want my perfection back.’
For Patricia, the pace of life and expectations in the US is a constant challenge. She works two jobs and is applying to study social work. ‘In Syria, people would take time to hear you, even if you weren’t talking,’ she recalls. ‘America is very competitive. Here I can show you my best but my quality is still the worst.’ Before the war she was a volunteer counsellor for Iraqi refugees. When she returns, she will help her own people heal the psychological scars left by conflict.
In her bedroom in a rented apartment in Queens, Marwa looks through old university photos on Facebook. While her application for asylum is pending, she cannot travel, and without US citizenship, which will take four more years to acquire, she cannot return to Syria even if she wanted to. This is as close as she can get to her friends and family.
Flicking through albums of smiling faces, Marwa says that what she misses most about Syria is the smell of jasmine and the old city of Damascus in the spring. It may be one of the few historical parts of Syria not reduced to rubble by the fighting. ‘One day I will go back, because my Dad is buried there, but I know that day is not going to come soon. I will have to wait for at least eight to ten years to go back home. Just thinking about it breaks my heart.’