There were many new things that 18-year-old Yaman Alsaadi had to adjust to when he arrived in the United States in 2016 as a refugee from Syria: The language, which he didn't speak. Snowstorms, which he'd never seen before. High school football games and school dances, which were both confusing and intimidating.
But in some ways, the toughest and most important adjustment was getting used to living in a safe place. In his old neighborhood in Damascus, the capital of Syria, just walking to school meant risking imprisonment, kidnapping, or being shot to death.
"Walking down the street in Syria was scary because it was so unsafe and very bad things could happen to you," he says, sitting in his new home in Des Moines, Iowa. "Now that I'm in a safe country, I'm only afraid of being in a new place and speaking a new language. It's a better kind of fear--a small fear."
For seven years, Syria has been mired in a brutal civil war. More than 400,000 people have died and another 5 million have fled the country. Yaman and his family, who started their new lives in Des Moines last fall, are among the more than 20,000 Syrian refugees admitted to the United States since the civil war began. Gaining entry to the U.S. as a refugee is a cumbersome process that can take years, and those who succeed must then try to rebuild their lives in a culture they've never known.
"They often arrive in the United States with some form of trauma and a lot of stress, and are immediately expected to integrate into the community," says Danielle Grigsby, the associate director of Refugee Council USA, a coalition of nonprofit groups that work to help refugees. "Especially for refugees that don't speak English, those are some major stressors and hurdles."
For Yaman and his family--his mother, father, and younger sister--the journey to America began in 2012 after bombs destroyed their home in Damascus. They fled to Jordan with thousands of other refugees. At first, they hoped the war would end and they could return to Syria. But after four years in a refugee camp, "we got tired of waiting," Yaman remembers.
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Only a small percentage of refugees * are offered permanent homes in other countries. So when United Nations aid workers, who handle the early stages of refugee resettlement, asked the Alsaadis if they'd like to apply for entry into the U.S., they jumped at the chance.
The application for resettlement includes a complex vetting process to...