By Daniel Higgins
Photo by Brendan Bannon

Fatima Darwish El Nashef needed air, so she left her apartment and strolled through the Elmwood Village neighborhood of Buffalo. She had been feeling like a zombie, adjusting to a new home while constantly thinking about the hell she had left behind in Syria.

While exploring her new surroundings on that warm fall afternoon in 2013, she discovered that, while some things about life in the United States were infinitely better than living in a war zone, other, new problems now surfaced.

The man seemed to come out of nowhere. She doesn’t remember if he was old or young, just the look in his eyes, she recently recalled. He looked angry, and at first she didn’t understand that he was angry with her.

“Go back to your country,” he hissed. She thought about how she might have been singled out on a crowded street, and then she remembered of course it was her hijab. It was so much a part of her that the then-25-year-old momentarily forgot it was possible to look out of place wearing one. Her body flooded with fear. He continued to harass her as she walked north. The street was crowded, but no one intervened.

“Is this how it is? Is no one going to say anything?” she thought.

She broke into a run when one terrifying idea popped into her head: This was America. There are guns. Does he have a gun?

She jogged north and caught a bus home. Her harasser was gone. But it wasn’t long after this that El Nashef decided that part of fitting into her new home meant standing out less. She stopped wearing her hijab in public. She went through a period of mourning, she said, parting with a garment that had been a part of the way she’d presented herself to the world since she was a young teenager. But it was just one of many adjustments she and her husband, Salih, have made since escaping the Syrian civil war four years ago.

Buffalo accepted more refugees between 2012 and 2016 than any other city in the Northeast — upwards of 7,300 displaced persons.

Here in Western New York, the refugee population is booming. In Buffalo alone, some 10,000 people have been resettled since 2000, when the city began accepting refugees in large numbers. According to a study by the University of Vermont, Buffalo accepted more refugees between 2012 and 2016 than any other city in the Northeast — upwards of 7,300 displaced persons. The influx has been so great that it’s managed to slow Buffalo’s population decline, which has been precipitous as manufacturing jobs have disappeared. In 1950, Buffalo had more than 550,000 residents. Today, the population is less than 260,000.

Smaller cities like Buffalo have become popular destinations for refugees, because of the lower cost of living. But with an influx of refugees and other immigrants comes fear, and with fear comes discrimination and prejudice. Often, the fears expressed in public about refugees are connected to violence: the fear of the refugee as the foreign terrorist. The statistics don’t support this. There have been no fatal acts of terrorism committed by refugees since the Refugee Act of 1980 was passed, establishing a system in the U.S. for accepting refugees, according to a study by the Cato Institute. In that time, the U.S. has accepted more than three million refugees.

Since Donald Trump was elected president a year ago, El Nashef’s husband, Salih, said racists, and those who hate immigrants or Muslims have felt emboldened to speak out. He’s felt more afraid here this year than ever before, explaining that part of his fear is linked directly to Trump’s rhetoric. It reminds him of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

“When I hear Trump say it’s ‘fake news,’ and saying he’s going to crack down on Muslims, I can’t help but compare,” Salih said. “It’s what Assad said all the time, before actual fighting broke out. ‘Don’t believe what you hear. Outside agitators are trying to undermine us. I have to fight the terrorists.’”

Like other refugees, the El Nashefs also carry with them the memories of the wars and genocides they left behind, as well as the constant worry about family still in harm’s way.

On the same day she left for the U.S., Fatima said, her aunt called her to say that an apartment building was bombed, killing a dozen members of Fatima’s extended family. Fatima said she was so shocked that the full force of the grief didn’t hit until after she arrived in this country.

“And I worry about my grandmother, my friends. Others who I might never see again who are still there,” she said.

The El Nashefs’ struggles are common among people fleeing war, persecution, or starvation. Ali Khadum, a crisis counselor in Buffalo whose clients include many refugees, said post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects about 25 percent of all refugees, and many more have something he described as adjustment disorder.

“You have a new country, new weather, new food, a new language. On top of that, these are people who witnessed violence or torture, or maybe were the victim of it directly.”

He said it’s often difficult to get people into treatment, sometimes for cultural reasons, and sometimes because they’re not ready to discuss their trauma.

The El Nashefs said it’s likely they have both suffered from depression, anxiety, and possibly PTSD at different points since their arrival here. And while they were raised to treat depression as something that can be reversed with prayer and a good attitude, they would rather seek treatment if they could. Their health insurance is so expensive, though, and the system so confusing, that they dare not go to a doctor for anything.

“We don’t know what anything is going to cost until after,” Salih said. “We don’t want to be in debt. We just tried to get back to ‘zero.’”

Like other refugees, the El Nashefs also carry with them the memories of the wars and genocides they left behind, as well as the constant worry about family still in harm’s way.

Refugees tend to have lower incomes than other immigrants, and the population as a whole. But those incomes tend to rise the more years they spend in the U.S., said Michelle Mittelstadt, director of communications for the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, which tracks immigration policy in the U.S.

“We’re finding it’s often a good story, the more years they are here,” she said, as refugees attain education, start businesses, and establish themselves in jobs.

But a worrying trend has emerged. While incomes of refugees do rise significantly, a Migration Policy Institute report noted that refugees who have arrived here more recently are earning less after five years than those who first arrived in the 1990s. And, despite being able to find jobs, many live in poverty or, like the El Nashefs, are just getting by.

The El Nashefs hope their lives will improve once they can start practicing again as dentists. They had just begun their dentistry careers in Syria before they had to flee. Now, they must sit for rigorous exams and attend two more years of American dental school before they can practice here. Meanwhile, Salih is working in a dental lab as a technician, and Fatima is a doula and social worker for a program aimed at refugee women.

Kadhum knows all about struggles like the ones the El Nashefs are facing. In 2008, he and his family came to the U.S. as refugees from Iraq. “We were met at the airport by a retired couple from a church. They said they wanted to help us with emotional support. It was wonderful.”

Daniel Higgins is a writer living in Buffalo, NY. He teaches journalism at Canisius College. Twitter: @dan_higgins