By Tracy Smith
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
Nine-year-old Syrian refugee Yaseen pulls up his sweater to proudly show off the scar he received during surgery four years ago and explains with a huge grin that he has “defeated death.”
Only he hasn’t.
Yaseen, who suffers from a fatal disease called sickle beta thalassemia, came to the United States with his family this fall in hopes of receiving the bone-marrow transplant that is his only chance of survival.
His family had hoped he and his 6-year-old sister, Ghadir – who was also diagnosed with the disease – could get the proper treatment in their hometown of Daraa, Syria. But the civil war that has torn that country apart made that goal impossible.
“We did not have the American dream,” said Yaseen’s father, Nader. “We were forced to leave our country and come to the United States for our lives; we didn’t have any other options.”
The six-member family has now settled in Severna Park, where they are trying to adjust to a new culture and the loss they feel from leaving their homeland.
They did not have the best impression of the United States before arriving here, but the warmth they have felt from their neighbors and a local church has changed all of that.
“America is a country of individualism and so I thought they would only care about things,” said Ramya, Yaseen’s mother. “But I was overwhelmed by the love and reception and generosity of others.”
When the war erupted in 2011, Nader and Ramya’s home was under siege by the Syrian army. Tanks rolled through the streets of Daraa and there was an enforced curfew. They were anxious and frightened, but as parents, their trials began four years earlier when their second son was born.
“Our lives turned sad with the birth of Yaseen,” Ramya said.
Just months after he was born, they knew something was wrong. He was unusually sick and pale. After a series of blood tests, the doctors confirmed that their baby boy had sickle beta thalassemia.
He was receiving blood transfusions monthly and was hospitalized on a regular basis. In 2012, Yaseen’s spleen was surgically removed because of the disease. He was only 5 years old.
Amid the political unrest, Yaseen’s health worsened. Throughout 2012, he was severely anemic and extremely weak, unable to even walk. Nader and Ramya knew their son was dying and in need of a blood transfusion, but the curfew restricted them from leaving Daraa.
[pullquote]“America is a country of individualism and so I thought they would only care about things,” said Ramya, Yaseen’s mother. “But I was overwhelmed by the love and reception and generosity of others.”[/pullquote]Nader begged a soldier from the regime to drive him and his son to nearby Damascus. The soldier agreed, yet when they arrived at the hospital, the doctor demanded that for every one unit of blood they would give to Yaseen, Nader had to find three people to donate blood in return.
“I did not know anyone in Damascus,” Nader said. “But I ran into the street and screamed, ‘My son is dying and I need blood.’”
He pleaded with tears and found two volunteers, and then the soldier who drove them also agreed to be a donor. The doctor gave Yaseen one unit of blood as promised, but without more, he would die within a week.
That’s when Nader made the decision that he had to flee Syria with his family.
“Our life was threatened and the life of our kids was threatened,” Nader said.
On Feb. 22, 2013, just before dawn, with only two suitcases, they left their house, belongings, extended family and friends, and the only country they had ever called home.
A driver agreed to take them as far as the Syrian-Jordanian border. Nader helped Ramya and their four children climb through a fence and they walked through a buffer zone that could have been filled with mines. When the Jordanian National Guard saw them, they brought them to safety.
“They were very nice. They helped us with our kids,” Ramya said, wiping away tears. “It is hard. It is your country and you are being uprooted.”
The U.S. Department of State defines a refugee as “someone who has fled from his or her home country and cannot return because he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.”
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are an estimated 4.8 million Syrian refugees worldwide.
For the next four months, Nader and his family lived at the Zaatari Refugee Camp, a 3-square-mile piece of land located in the Jordanian desert.
The dust, temperature, and general living conditions proved to be arduous on both Yaseen and Ghadir’s health. After frequent trips to the camp’s hospital, the doctors recommended that they find a sponsor in Jordan, which is required to leave the camp.
A first cousin who resides in Jordan offered to help them, and they were able to relocate 20 miles away where better medical assistance was available.
While Yaseen’s health was improving in the new environment, Ghadir’s health was declining as a result of the disease.
“Ghadir’s spleen was enlarged and my heart was broken,” Ramya said. “I was fearful that what happened to Yaseen would happen to my little girl.”
Over time, her health improved enough to avoid surgery, but the doctor believed that both children would have the greatest success if they were in the United States. Baltimore was the best option for resettlement because of the access to Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Nader and Ramya never had a “dream or wish” to be in the United States. Syria was their home and they were brokenhearted when they had to leave. But their children’s lives were at risk.
To gain entry into the U.S., the family had to go through a rigorous security screening process. The UNHCR completes the first round of security checks, which includes collecting biometric data. Individuals are then screened by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department.
There are in-depth interviews, additional biometric security checks, medical examinations and cultural orientation classes. Throughout this lengthy process, pending applications are vetted repeatedly against terrorist databases to ensure that the individual does not pose a security risk.
Nader and his family arrived in New York by way of John F. Kennedy International Airport on Sept. 6. The entire process to enter the U.S. took them three and a half years.
World Relief, a resettlement agency with offices in Baltimore and Anne Arundel County, works with the State Department and local church partners to help welcome and resettle thousands of refugees referred by the United Nations Refugee Agency.
Nan Ross, volunteer coordinator at the Anne Arundel office, helps to educate the community and mobilize volunteers to assist refugees that resettle in nearby areas.
“When a refugee is able to establish a relationship with an American, they feel hope,” the 54-year-old advocate said. “Volunteers can really make a huge difference and many refugees do not have one person to help them.”
Nader’s family is fortunate. They are on the receiving end of what Ross calls a “good neighbor team.” Fifty-five members of Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church in Severna Park have volunteered their time and resources to support the family.
Not only has the church provided them with housing for the first year, but volunteers also help with medical visits, English lessons, cultural orientation, grocery and clothes shopping, and any other need that arises.
All four children are in school and adjusting well. Nader recently began a job at a local grocery store as a stock clerk. Ramya is caring for her children and working to learn the English language.
Yaseen and Ghadir continue to receive medical treatment under a team of physicians at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Nader may not have the American dream, but he does have a dream.
“My only dream is to get my kids treated,” he said.
Nader and Ramya understand the perception that Americans can have toward Syrian refugees. They know that some will assume they could be terrorists. They also acknowledge the negative perceptions that Syrians often have toward Americans.
Being the recipient of so much love and care after such a brief time here has turned “everything upside down,” Ramya said.
“Look at us,” she said. “We are exactly like you. We love, we hate, we cry, we laugh. We are human. We belong to the same race.”
Editor’s note: The family’s last name was not included in this story to protect them and their relatives still in Syria.