In Bay Ridge, a Syrian Family Awaits Asylum

Bay Ridge (Photo by Marco Poggio for Voices of NY)

Bay Ridge (Photo by Marco Poggio for Voices of NY)

Basim is sitting in his small apartment in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, looking at photos of his former life – photos of him with his wife Hiba in their big, old house in Saudi Arabia; photos of family members in their home country, Syria; photos of their oldest daughter Lamar when she was sick. A type of cancer had attacked her nervous system, making her cross-eyed. Medication caused her face to swell.

Lamar looks completely different now: She’s a healthy 7-year-old who laughs and sneaks a peek at the photos behind her father. She squeals as she spots a photo of her old self, covers her face with her hands and runs away.

“We are very lucky,” says Basim. “The doctors said that it’s a semi-miracle that she recovered.”

In other ways the family is not so lucky. Basim, an engineer, and his wife Hiba, an orthodontist, have lived in New York with their three children since July 2014. They are struggling financially because they spent all their savings on their daughter’s treatments. The couple is from Latakia, Syria, and had hoped their move to the U.S. would be temporary, until they could return home.

But now Syria is in upheaval.

What started as an uprising against the Syrian government five years ago has become a raging war involving the Syrian government, rebel groups, the Islamic State, a U.S.-led coalition, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and others. The 5-year-old war has killed more than 200,000 people and caused nearly 6 million to be internally displaced in Syria while 4.5 million have left the country as refugees.

Basim had been living and working in Saudi Arabia, where salaries are much higher than in Syria. He moved there in 1997, and Hiba joined him there in 2007, the year they were married.

Basim and Hiba oppose President Bashar al-Assad. Hiba once wrote a post on Facebook expressing sympathy for Syrians who had been killed by government attacks during protests in Latakia. Sometime thereafter, Hiba traveled to Syria with her children and was handed a letter at the Bassel Al-Assad International Airport in Latakia.  The letter, she says, directed her to see the Syrian intelligence service. When she did, she says she was questioned for more than three hours about her Facebook post. According to Hiba, she was told that she should be ashamed of herself. And that if she ever considered writing a similar post again, she should remember that she still has family in Syria.

Since then, she has been afraid to return. Even when she was in Lebanon only three hours away from her home city by car, she chose not to visit.

“I fear that they will arrest me and my husband if we travel to Syria again,” says Hiba.

Hiba and Basim have also attended more than 10 anti-Assad demonstrations in the U.S. and they say they worry that the Syrian government knows and would hold it against them were they to go back home.

They requested that their real names not be published to protect their family members in Syria from government harassment.

“A Family Disease”

It was their daughter’s disease that first brought them to the U.S.

In May 2011, Lamar was throwing up and had trouble keeping her balance.

She was diagnosed with a very rare neurological disorder that only affects 1 in 10 million people per year: Opsoclonus Myoclonus Syndrome, which can have different causes. For Lamar, the source was neuroblastoma, a type of cancer that affects part of the nervous system, and doctors said that was fortunate, because the syndrome is more treatable when the source is cancer than when it has other causes.

Yet, in Saudi Arabia, Basim and Hiba say, her doctor eventually gave up on treating the disease because it kept relapsing. The sickness affected Lamar’s body and brain. Her moods changed, she became bad-tempered and would cry frequently and hit her head when she was alone. Her immune system was so weak that she couldn’t go to school, and often had to wear a mask. She would bite and pinch her parents and she would let only her mother carry her. She took anti-depressants, and cortisone treatments led to dramatic weight gain.

Part of her body was paralyzed and she couldn’t do anything on her own. It was as if she became an infant again.

“It was a family disease,” says Basim. “It affected all of us.”

The family started traveling from Saudi Arabia to the U.S. on visitor visas for treatments at a research center in Illinois specializing in Lamar’s disease. In 2013, they had a layover in New York and ended up staying for two months because their appointment in Illinois was postponed. They got to know other Syrian families in the city – people they met on the subway or on the street. When they finally went to their appointment in July the doctor had good news: Lamar was in full remission.

They went back to Saudi Arabia, still hoping that they could return to Syria one day. But when Assad won the re-election in 2014 they changed their minds.

“We knew then that there was no way back to Syria,” says Hiba.

They couldn’t stay in Saudi Arabia either, since strict immigration laws foreclosed their becoming permanent residents, and they feared being deported at some point.

Applying for Asylum

So they moved to Bay Ridge, a neighborhood in Brooklyn with a large Arab population.

“We have gotten to know more people in New York in a year and a half than we did in all those years in Saudi Arabia,” says Hiba.

“We had to leave Saudi Arabia for the sake of our children’s future. We thought that we could secure a future for the kids here.”

In August 2014, they applied for asylum and they are still waiting for a decision.

Jon Bauer, clinical professor of law at the University of Connecticut, said that the decision depends on the asylum officer’s judgment of how credible their account is.

“If an asylum officer finds that there is reasonable ground for fearing persecution it could be a successful claim,” he said. “There might be an issue if the family was formerly resettled to Saudi Arabia. But if they only have temporary status and no right to remain there permanently then that bar will probably not apply.”

The family is now broke financially. Basim says they spent between $140,000 and $160,000 from their savings on their daughter’s treatment – and had substantial travel expenses as well.

Basim and Hiba have work permits while their immigration status is pending. However, despite the fact that they had successful careers in Saudi Arabia, they weren’t able to find jobs in New York City for a long time. Basim recently started a new job as an engineer, and after a three-month trial period, he will know if he can keep the job. Hiba spent nine years studying to be an orthodontist and now she says she can’t even get a job as an orthodontist’s assistant.

Family members in Syria send the couple money, and that helps them get by. They own a house in Syria, but its value has decreased dramatically and they would have to return home to sell it.

Lamar is well now, but she still needs regular checkups. Her parents live in constant fear that the disease will return – and that reinforces their desire to remain here. “When she gets a cold we become so afraid,” says Basim. “We are always afraid that the disease will come back. We have no faith in any treatment outside of the U.S.”

In their two-bedroom apartment, Lamar is drawing a ladybug in a new sketchbook her mother just bought her.

“How many legs does a ladybug have?” asks Lamar.

Her mother responds with a question: “Is a ladybug an insect or not?”

“An insect,” says Lamar.

“So how many legs?” asks her mother.

“Six,” responds Lamar.

Lamar is in a special education class at school, and seems to be underperforming a little for her age. “We still don’t know if it’s because of the new language or the disease,” says Hiba.

Lamar is now using an iPad. “I love my mom and dad,” she writes. “I love my sister and brother.”

“In Saudi Arabia we had a tent full of toys. My dad would take us in the car and had a nice job,” says Lamar. “Here we walk and walk and take trains and buses. It makes me dizzy.”

Hiba laughs and says that the kids prefer Saudi Arabia because they lived in a big house where the living room alone was the size of their current Brooklyn apartment. Back then they had money to buy the children whatever they wanted, but now they have to say no a lot.

“But our situation is very good compared to millions of Syrians who are sleeping in refugee camps in the cold weather,” says Basim.

“I wish that the situation improves in Syria and that we are accepted as asylum seekers here.”

“I wish that Syria becomes free,” says Hiba. “And I really wish that I can see my family in Syria again.”

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