Only hours after signing a contract with their landlord, Fadia Afashe and her husband Jay Abdo lay shivering on the floor of their new apartment that they had found on Craigslist. Beside them stood two suitcases, surrounded by blank walls and empty rooms. Unfamiliar with the heating system and with nobody to contact for help, the couple covered themselves with their own clothes for warmth.
This night marked a step forward for Afashe and Abdo in overcoming a significant obstacle as Syrian refugees in Los Angeles: finding a home. Without jobs or a credit score, they had been looked upon with skepticism by landlord after landlord, leading to countless rejections and nights at motels.
“I felt I was homeless,” Afashe said. “No one knew me to help me get an apartment, so I felt untrusted and I felt it was personal.”
Afashe originally left her home city of Damascus in 2011 to study public policy with the Humphrey Fellowship Program in Minneapolis, Minnesota. But as protests against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s government turned to civil war, she realized that the fall of the Syrian regime would not be attainable in the near future, as she had hoped.
Worried about her husband’s safety, Afashe convinced Abdo to temporarily join her in Minneapolis until the instability subdued.
As weeks turned to months, violence only increased, and all hope of returning home to their families vanished. Abdo, a well-known actor and Syrian celebrity, found little opportunity to continue his acting career in Minneapolis, prompting him and Afashe to drive west and start a new life in Los Angeles in May of 2012.
Afashe and Abdo are only two of millions of Syrians who have fled their country in recent years. According to Amnesty International, more than 50 percent of Syrians are now displaced due to the ongoing conflict. A United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees study indicates that almost five million Syrians have fled their country since the start of the civil war in 2011.
Last September, President Obama announced his plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees into the U.S. borders this year. In comparison, Germany, a country about 85 percent the size of California, approved almost 150,000 asylum applications in 2015, according to Eurostat.
Afashe said that many of the difficulties she and Abdo have faced in assimilating into American society stem from a general lack of support for refugees. They have found that while the opportunities in this country are endless, they are only available to those who understand the system. Foreigners, Afashe said, are provided with few resources to take advantage of all that the U.S. has to offer.
While she said that she appreciates the generosity of the American people she has met, Afashe was surprised by how many are uninformed about global issues.
“I have a different image of the U.S. now,” Afashe said. “When I came, I was thinking I was coming to the free land, the free country of speech. But I was a little bit shocked, because I had high expectations about the level of education in general. I had high expectations of the people understanding international issues.”
History teacher Dror Yaron sees the Syrian crisis a central topic of discussion in his classes, he said. He devoted the first week of homework assignments in his Middle East Studies class to American foreign policy towards Syria. He also examined the Syrian crisis with his World and Europe II sophomore class.
Yaron said that the students had, for the most part, a basic knowledge of the issue.
“There was a general awareness, among even sophomores who are not so enmeshed in current events,” Yaron said. “They were aware that there was some disaster unfolding in Syria. The extent of it, the complexity of it, they are definitely not aware.”
Yaron said that Harvard-Westlake students tend to be more aware of current events than most Americans, noting that Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson recently admitted during an interview that he had never heard of Aleppo, a major Syrian city at the center of violent clashes between Syrian government and anti-government forces.
History teacher Jennifer Tiari, who worked to help resettle Iraqi refugees as an undergraduate student at Vanderbilt University, also pointed to Johnson’s lack of knowledge surrounding the conflict in Syria as an indication of American ignorance.
“If a presidential candidate doesn’t know what Aleppo is, I can tell you that the majority of Americans probably are not clear enough on what the situation is in Syria,” Tiari said.
Given the general oblivion among the American population towards global current events, Tiari said that Harvard-Westlake students have the ability to use their knowledge to inform others.
“[Students] have so much potential to enact change,” Tiari said. “That’s why I’d say that somewhere like Harvard-Westlake is the perfect place to be engaging with this conversation.”
Jasmine Choi ’19 attributes her lack of understanding of the Syrian refugee crisis to the media’s limited coverage of the issue. She said that she has noticed a recent decrease in talk of the crisis, as it is widely considered old news.
“When [the Syrian refugee crisis] first occurred, it was a while back, so I think now that it’s older, people have kind of forgotten about it and don’t realize it’s still occurring,” Choi said.
Emily Rahhal ’17 is one of the few Harvard-Westlake students with a direct connection to the Syrian crisis. Her dad was born in Damascus and left Syria with his brother and parents in 1969. She said that when she reads the news and hears about Syrian refugees, she is reminded that her dad could have been one of them.
Rahhal, who is a Chronicle Presentations Editor, said she discusses the conflict in Syria at home, allowing her to bring a unique perspective on the issue to campus.
“I think there’s naturally a lack of perspective from the Middle East on campus,” Rahhal said. “It’s very different than the conversations I have at my house, just because my dad has a really good understanding of the culture and what it is to actually be living in Syria. It’s just very different because he has a more personal perspective on it.”
Although few students have direct connections to Syria or Syrian refugees, some have personal connections to the refugee crisis on a broader level. Naomi Barlava ’17, whose dad left Iran in 1978 due to the Iranian Revolution, said that her dad’s story allows her to better empathize with people seeking safety in the U.S., regardless of their nationality.
“My dad came because his country wasn’t safe anymore and the U.S. was a place where immigrants could come as a safe haven, so it definitely resonates with me that people are trying to take that away from the people who need it most,” Barlava said.
Reflecting on Americans’ perspectives on global issues such as the Syrian refugee crisis, Abdo stressed the importance of learning about and understanding events that may appear distant.
“We think that when atrocities or tragedies or dilemmas happen far away from us, we’re safe,” Abdo said. “This is wrong. The people on this earth are one human body. If it affects a place far away from us, it doesn’t mean we are safe.”
Lola Clark ’17 said that she has learned about the situation in Syria by taking Yaron’s Middle East Studies class as well as by discussing the issue with Rahhal. Learning about the Syrian refugee crisis, she said, has taught her the importance of understanding events that seem to be occurring far from home.
“It’s hard to think of things that are so far away from us as pertaining to us in our lives, but really they do,” Clark said.
On a Sunday afternoon last month, Abdo and Afashe sat on their living room couch surrounded by colorful pillows and decorated walls in the same room that was once bare and cold. Their lives have improved since first arriving in Los Angeles. They were granted asylum in June 2013 and now hope to receive U.S. citizenship in less than two years. Abdo has succeeded in establishing himself in Hollywood, having acted in the film “Queen of the Desert” alongside actress Nicole Kidman last year.
But as they flipped through an old Syrian magazine and gazed at a picture of themselves smiling at a movie premier in Damascus, the couple longed to return home.
“I miss my life in Syria because I miss this happiness with my family,” Afashe said. “Damascus for me is a very warm city because I have this love around me, I have people around me. I never felt alone one day in my life. It’s very different here.”