Gallery: World Refugee Day: Local Syrian refugees share memories of a war-torn country, hope for better future in the U.S.
When the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, Faihaa Fuyome and her family's world was shaken to its core. For six months, they stayed in the bottom level of their home for 12 hours per day as bombs and bullets flew by, killing countless family, friends and neighbors.
Fuyome, her husband and four children are one of several refugee families resettled in Chattanooga, but they're the only Syrian family. It took five treacherous years before the United Nations referred them to the United States for resettlement.
Before the war, they had everything, she said. A nice home. A car. Her children were in private school. Her husband worked in carpentry, and she was a beautician.
"We had an amazing life," Fuyome's oldest daughter, Yara Hourani, said.
But when pro-democracy protests erupted across the country in March 2011, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used violent tactics to silence demonstrators who were demanding an end to his authoritarian regime. By 2012, opposition militias grew and the conflict developed into a full-on civil war.
Since then, an estimated 470,000 people have died, according to the Human Rights Watch 2017 World Report that cites a 2016 report by the Syrian Center for Policy Research.
It became too dangerous to go outside, even just to buy food, Fuyome said. Bomb attacks could come at any time. Electricity was eventually cut off. Water would be turned on only one day per week, and her children were unable to go to school.
Many of Fuyome's family members are missing, she said, and her husband has lost 42 percent of his family to chemical bombs.
"My children cried," she said. They told her they didn't want to die there. They needed to go somewhere else, anywhere.
"We wanted a safe place," Hourani said.
Hourani, now 17, vividly remembers a day fighters began shooting near their house and her father told her to run and hide behind a building. She was 12 at the time.
"My dad pushed us all the way on the floor, and we had to stay on the floor for maybe 10 minutes, and I could feel the bullets beside my ears going 'zoom,'" Hourani said. "That was scary."
Another time a row of houses at the end of their street was bombed. Her father told people rushing to rescue their family members to wait before they went.
"They didn't listen to him," she said. "[Attackers] bombed the same place again, so everyone who wanted to save their family died with them."
Around 30 people died that day.
"We saw all of them because our house was in the middle," Hourani said. "We saw a lot of people, some of them [bleeding]. My dad said, 'Do not look. Get inside.' But I already [saw everything]."
Shrapnel from exploding bombs also was a constant concern, she said. Fragments of metal, glass shards and nails, so small they're like bullets, Fuyome said.
"If it gets you, it will cut you," Hourani said.
Her twin brother was hit with shrapnel from a bomb detonating just outside their home, she said. But a heavy jacket he was wearing kept it from piercing his skin.
"He caught it in his back, but my mom, she yelled, and she pushed him down the stairs and took his jacket off so it [would] not get on him," Hourani said.
Fuyome said her children pleaded with her and her husband to leave. But it was a dangerous and uncertain journey to the border with Jordan. Snipers lurked amid the rough terrain, some so far away it was impossible to see them before being hit, she said.
Finally, the family packed as little as they possibly could in just two bags and set out on the three-day trek to the border with Jordan.
Having to leave her home country broke her heart, Fuyome said.
"It's so hard to leave your country and your home," she said. But she's grateful to have left when they did because they were later notified that their home was demolished by bombs only two hours after leaving.
Along the way, they had to run and jump and hide to dodge snipers, Fuyome said. She and her husband tried to joke with their children to keep them from being too afraid.
"We had a lot of fun," she said with a laugh before tears welled in her eyes. "[The children] are crying, and I tell them, you can think like we're in a TV show or movie. We have fun!"
"She did this because we were afraid to die," Hourani said of her mother. "She tried to make jokes and make us laugh."
And so they pressed on. But when they got to Jordan, they were turned away. The Jordanian government told them to try again in a month, so they did. And again, they were turned away. It took them four tries before they were allowed into refugee camps, Fuyome said, but not before they were trapped in no man's land for three days, with Jordan not accepting them and Syria refusing to let them back in.
The camps were like jail, Hourani said. Rows and rows of white tents housed hundreds of families, yet many people died of hypothermia in the camps.
"They'll go to sleep, and the next day they're dead," Hourani said. "Because it's raining and snowing outside" and the tents provided little to no insulation.
Sometimes people fought among themselves.
"It's dangerous. I can't live with my family in the camps," Fuyome said.
If someone tried to exit the camp, the Jordanian government would shoot them dead, she said, but she and her family were able to leave by asking for special permission to make an emergency visit to people they knew who already lived in Jordan.
They stayed in Jordan for about four years, carving out new lives as much as they could as refugees. Then the U.N. tapped them for resettlement in the U.S.
When they first arrived in the U.S. a year-and-a-half ago, they knew very little English. She and her family attended English classes five times per week for six months, and now they're able to hold a conversation, which has opened the door to obtaining a driver's license, a job and attending school.
Hourani, now a sophomore in high school, said she wants to study to be a pediatrician.
"I want to be a doctor for babies because I saw a lot of babies die and no one could help them," she said.
She's also been accepted as part of the RefAmerica program, a month-long program in leadership training for Syrian refugee teens. She'll be traveling to Washington, D.C., in July to tell her story to "supportive American audiences," according to the organization's website.
They're happy here, both Hourani and Fuyome said.
Hourani's paternal grandparents are still in Syria, though. And they're unable to join them in the U.S. because of President Trump's travel ban, which blocks entry of Syrian refugees, claiming it's detrimental to the interests of the country.
Hourani said her grandparents had almost completed the process to come to the U.S. when the travel ban was announced.
"It's just a breaking heart for us," she said.
"I'm so sad about that," Fuyome said. "My dream was my family came here and [loved] life with us."
It's families like Fuyome's that World Refugee Day aims to honor the resilience of, the courage and hope they have, and to highlight the global refugee crisis.
Refugees are not immigrants, said Marina Peshterianu, associate director of Bridge Refugee Services.
"People very often think that people want to come to the U.S., and this is their dream, and they always wanted to come to America," she said. "The majority of refugees didn't plan to leave their country."
She said most refugees would rather go home if it were possible to return to their home country.
"Very few people actually plan this move [to the U.S.], and [those who do] are called immigrants," she said.
Here in Chattanooga, Bridge Refugee Services held a celebration for World Refugee Day at Granfaloon on East Main Street Wednesday evening. International appetizers were served, along with dance performances and live music played by refugees from different countries.
"We're good people," Fuyome said. "We just need a choice for a new life. Please open the door and let other refugees to come to the United States."
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