CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — A child’s red bike sits near the entryway of the clean, nondescript apartment. The TV silently plays an Arabic-language soap opera. More than a dozen pairs of shoes are left in a pile outside the sliding door that leads to the sprawling green lawns of the apartment complex.2
A family of eight lives here, but Zeed Alzoubi, Zeed’s wife and his youngest son are the only ones home. The Alzoubis’ other five boys, ages ranging from 9 to 18, are at school for the day. Zeed’s wife is caring for their 4-year-old, who isn’t in school yet.
The Alzoubis immigrated to the United States as refugees from Syria in September after enduring years where Zeed struggled to put food on the table and keep his family safe.
“It was like being in boiling water for years and then being plucked right out,” Zeed said.
The Alzoubis’ apartment has been paid for since September by World Relief, an international nonprofit organization that works to resettle refugees.
Emily Montes, a UNC-Chapel Hill senior and case management and refugee health intern for World Relief, has been volunteering in the Alzoubis’ home since September. She said it’s been humbling to see their patience with all the roadblocks of being displaced in a country that is foreign to them.
“The only difference between them and me is that I speak English fluently,” she said.
“They’re not someone to pity, they’re someone to learn from.”
Zeed will soon begin working as a shawarma chef, which was his profession in Syria and involves cooking various types of meat for long periods of time over a spit for use in sandwiches. As a chef, he will again be able to pay his family’s rent himself.
Zeed laughs easily and has a warm smile and a calm, friendly manner. He is open and candid about his experience being uprooted from his home in Daraa.
The family had a completely normal life before the Syrian crisis started, Zeed said. He worked in a restaurant, and his kids were in school. But they began feeling less safe when unrest began to grow out of the Arab Spring protests in 2011.
The family was most fearful of people in the city who were taking advantage of the political crisis by stealing goods and harassing, assaulting and kidnapping people. Zeed said he was afraid to let any of his kids leave the house, even to pick up groceries down the street.
After a brief, unsuccessful move to Lebanon in 2012, the family returned to Syria, where the situation had worsened. The rebel groups opposing the government had not been centralized, so many were small groups of five or six men with guns. Zeed felt neither the Assad regime nor its opponents could be trusted; both were violent and their actions hard to predict. Young men would frequently disappear without warning, so some would hide out in trees and behind buildings in constant fear of being taken.
There’s even a new word in Arabic for the random, arbitrary violence between the government and rebel groups, Zeed said: “kuzuf.”
“Living with kuzuf is like living in Carrboro with people blindly shooting missiles and bullets at you from Durham,” he said.
The Assad army would come to people’s homes in the mornings and search them for weapons and illegal items — and anything they wanted to take. The army took his motorcycle during one of these searches.
Zeed began forbidding his children to leave the house. Even at home, though, they weren’t totally safe—once, the entire side of their house was destroyed.
Finally, after two and a half months, the Alzoubis decided to leave again. This time, Zeed traveled alone to Jordan in 2012 with a plan to bring his family once he was settled. At one of the checkpoints on the border, though, Zeed was stopped by Jordanian police.
They told him he had been reported for a crime but would not tell him who had reported him or why, he said. Not knowing what was happening, he sat in prison for four months.
Finally, desperate, he decided to make a statement by refusing to eat until Jordanian officials told him why they had locked him up. This scared the prison officials, Zeed said, and after a few days, they agreed to set up a meeting between Zeed and the man who had reported him.
When the man saw Zeed, he was shocked. He said, “Who is this?” Then, the man burst into tears.
It turned out there was another person with the same first, middle and last name as Zeed. He had been imprisoned for four months for no valid reason. When the prison officials realized their mistake, they released him immediately.
Alone in Amman, Zeed contacted the one person he knew there, who found him a job in a restaurant. The rest of the family followed. But their life in Jordan was still troubled.
A large metropolitan city, Amman is an expensive place to live, and Zeed said he would make only about seven dollars per 12-hour workday. On top of that, there was a lot of discrimination by Jordanians against Syrians, particularly by young Jordanians.
Once, his son came home with blood pouring out of his face after a group of Jordanian teenagers beat him up.
Zeed said it didn’t help that because of their income, the family wasn’t living in the nicest part of the city. He had a tough decision to make: Stay in poverty, barely surviving, or return to living in the midst of a war?
Then came the phone call.
In February 2016, Zeed received a call from the UN offering to relocate his family in the United States. There’s a saying in Arabic that he said captures how he felt, which is translated as “the door of happiness opened, and the best thing possible entered.”
“In that moment, if I could have traveled through the phone to America, I would have,” he said.
For the next several months, the family attended interview after interview by UN officials to determine whether they qualified to immigrate to the U.S. Zeed said they were paid 60 dinar, or about $100, to transport themselves to each interview — so they spent as little as possible and kept the rest to pay their food and rent.
After living briefly in Raleigh, the Alzoubis now live in Carrboro. Last semester, Montes would spend up to five days a week with the Alzoubis.
“This family has 180 degrees changed the trajectory of my life. They’re my family,” she said. “I literally call (Zeed) ‘daddy’ and he calls me his daughter.”
Montes said her own family life is not the best, in that she doesn’t have a relationship with her own father—but Zeed and his sons have helped fill that void.
“In the beginning when they first moved to Carrboro, the dad and boys would follow me home in their car and see me inside the house,” she said.
“That’s why that rhetoric that we’re helping the refugees is so wrong — they’re helping us. They’ve fed me when I didn’t have time to cook, they’ve helped me be more thankful and take school more seriously, because the kids take school so seriously.”
She said Zeed is very affectionate with his children, particularly the youngest.
“They’re my favorite father-son relationship—they’re always cuddled up, it’s unreal. I literally just sit and stare at them while they’re interacting.”
Montes said she’s grown to dislike the term “refugee.”
“I’m wary of that word because it removes agency and makes them the victim, which they are, but they’re also smart and determined, and they do have agency, and they do have a choice, and they’re gonna make it — they’re going to be successful,” she said.
Resettlement agencies like World Relief depend on federal funding for the majority of their financing. They receive a per capita grant dependent on the number of refugees coming into their area. That money helps support the agencies’ offices, staff and, mostly, the refugees themselves.
With dramatically fewer refugees arriving in the country, World Relief’s funding has dropped equally dramatically. The Durham office, for example, will be losing one-fourth of its federal funding, or about $250,000. Nationwide, five World Relief offices will close and 140 staff members will be laid off.
Right now, World Relief is focusing on supporting the families who have already immigrated and are here to stay, said Matthew Soerens, World Relief’s U.S. director of church mobilization.
Soerens said it’s a shame the current administration doesn’t see the advantages to bringing in more refugees.
“Refugees have contributed hugely to the entrepreneurship economy,” he said. For example, Vietnamese immigrants grew the nail salon industry out of nothing, and Google co-founder Sergey Brin was himself a refugee, Soerens said.
“We’re actually decimating an infrastructure to serve refugees well that has been really successful and has gotten better and better over time,” he said.
The rights of refugees shouldn’t come down to Republican and Democratic politics, Soerens said.
“We don’t view this primarily as a political issue. We’re not a partisan organization,” Soerens said. “The scriptures are actually pretty clear about how the followers of Jesus are supposed to respond to those who are displaced. It’s not a hard biblical issue at all.”
The majority of refugees are Muslim, not Christian, but Soerens said that has no impact on whether they can get assistance from World Relief, which works with local mosques as well as churches.
“We don’t serve them because they’re Christian,” he said. “We serve them because we’re Christian.”