Support and suspicion: The lonely life of a Syrian refugee in Maryland

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December 25

It is still dark when Mostafa Hassoun leaves his home on Main Street and catches a ride with his roommate, past rows of cozy restaurants and sailing souvenir boutiques to a locked Annapolis mall. To ward off the cold, he wears a sweater, jeans and a down vest he bought in Turkey.

In the shopping center’s empty silence, he spends three hours methodically making deli sandwiches — a job both reminiscent of and completely different from one he held in Turkey, slapping together sandwiches of ground beef and flatbread for fellow Syrians in a chaotic refugee camp.

This is the United States where Hassoun, a 23-year-old from a Syrian farming hamlet, is trying to build a life. It is a place where small-town generosity and kindness collide with the political tensions of a growing xenophobia; where Hassoun, who arrived in July, has found a modest home and modest opportunities just blocks from the mansion occupied by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), one of many U.S. governors who wants to halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees in this country.

Of the more than 4 million people who have fled Syria’s civil war since 2011, Hassoun is among just 2,550 who have made it to the United States. The reception has been both welcoming and fearful.

Maria and Jonathan Ulbricht, a Severna Park couple whose daughter taught Hassoun basic English over Skype while he was in Turkey, welcomed him into their home. Maria helped him find a job bagging groceries at the local Whole Foods and a place to live with a couple of other young men his age — American boys who like basketball and movies. (His landlord, who owns the food kiosk at the mall, offered him the early morning sandwich gig.) Maria hugged him when he felt isolated, wondering how to make life work in a place so completely divergent from everything he ever knew.

“I needed to talk,” he said, recalling his search for English words that he didn’t yet know. “I had so much in my heart — happiness, sadness — I needed to express it.”

As with most Syrians, Hassoun had never planned for this. He had never planned to leave his family or his village of apple trees and olive groves for a strange new world of scheduled friendships, pristine shopping malls and wide interstate highways. He was supposed to go to college in Syria as his sisters had. He was supposed to become an architect.

But the war didn’t give him that option. So he’s here, trying to find his way.

He knew that there would be challenges in entering the United States as a refu­gee — he would have to find work quickly; he would have to pay the government back for his $928 plane ticket; it would take years to obtain citizenship.

In six months, he has learned to navigate a strange new culture of doctors appointments, paperwork and the quintessential American routine of two jobs and “work, work, work.” He has learned about health insurance — and that he is required to have it. He has learned that in the minds of many Americans, Islam equals the Islamic State extremist group, and Syria — the country he fled — equals terrorism.

Read the full article here (Original published in the Washington Post)

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