Straight Outta Syria

Orange County is home to growing numbers of refugees from that country's growing civil war

"You have one hour to come with Basel [Shami] to our office, or we will go after your women," they told his father.

Ten minutes later, Shami's family and relatives drove to Lebanon with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They are among more than 74,000 Syrians who have so far fled to the tiny country of 4 million, which is fraught with its own instability and sectarian division.

"They don't have anything in Lebanon," says Shami. "They're trying to register my [younger] sister in an American school, but her English is not that good."

Jared Boggess

Shami also has an older sister who was supposed to get married six weeks after she fled to Lebanon, but with her husband stuck in Syria, she had to postpone the wedding indefinitely. His family recently tried to obtain a visa to the U.S., but to no avail.

Shami and Soori—both of whom are here on student visas that will eventually expire and are terrified of returning to Syria—recently met with a private immigration attorney, who told them their circumstances bode well for attaining asylum. Soori now takes English classes at a local community college. Shami had been about to enter his senior year in college when he left Syria.

Now he is starting all over again. They, along with the rest of the Syrian exodus, are trying to move on, but memories of the violence and continuing worries over their families and their country haunt their minds. "He feels like he doesn't have a relaxing moment in his brain to study and search and learn," Soori's relative says as she translates for him; he often switches to Arabic when asked to elaborate on his experience. "He feels disturbed."

As the number of refugees surges, as rebels increasingly gain ground in Syria, as the government continues to express its will to stay, hope wavers for some Syrians and is reinforced in others. "I have seen enough blood and death to last me a thousand lifetimes," Bassemy says. His eyes well up. There's a long, heavy pause. He looks down, rubs his eyes and inhales deeply, then looks up again.

"But I'm still standing on my feet."

*Name was removed, per request.

This article appeared in print as "Straight Outta Syria: Thousands are fleeing Syria's civil war—and growing numbers of refugees are heading to Orange County."

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