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Starting Over: A Syrian Family’s Journey to Morgantown, West Virginia

Racil Mando is a sophomore West Virginia University Student from Homs, Syria. She and her family fled to Morgantown in 2012, a year after the Syrian civil war started. Now, her family owns Beity on High Street. I talked to Racil about her emigration and adjusting to a new country.

 

JMS: Tell me about your life in Syria before you emigrated.

RM: My dad used to own a soda factory. He worked so much that it grew so much and it became systemic, so after this became a big thing, he decided to start another business, a compound with really big houses.

JMS: Like a housing development?

RM: Yep. But we didn’t finish it because we left before he finished it. The factory actually got destroyed. So we lost both of them, but that’s okay. My mom used to be a stay-at-home mom. She didn’t work or anything. Both of my parents are educated. My dad has bachelor’s degree in business and my mom has a bachelor’s degree in English.

I actually came here my junior year of high school with all my family. Our lives there, for me, was school, family and friends. I would just hang out with my family and friends in my free time and travel.

JMS: Sounds like you lived a pretty normal life.

RM: Very normal life.

JMS: What make you guys decide to leave?

RM: After the revolution started, we didn’t want to leave because my dad has this big business and he didn’t want to leave that. He worked in it a lot. So we stayed there for a year during all that war. During that year, our lives were in danger a lot. A lot of things happened. We were almost killed a couple of times.

My dad was like ‘I don’t care about my business anymore. Our lives are more important.’ So we just came here. I already had my three uncles here, my mom’s brothers. All three of them here, and my grandma also was here. So we knew people here and we just came here.

JMS: How old were you when you came here?

RM: I was 15.

JMS: Were you afraid to leave?

RM: It was very hard. Saying goodbye to my family and friends-that was the toughest part. I’m really attached to my city. All of us were actually so attached. We love it so much.

JMS: Where in Syria are you from?

RM: It’s in Homs. We really were connected to the people there. It was so hard leaving both the city and the people there. Just saying goodbye was the toughest part. The house that I grew up in for 15 years… It was hard to leave that and know I was never coming back to it again. It was so tough for me.

JMS: Did your family meet much resistance when you were trying to leave?

RM: There are no airplanes to here from Syria, so we had to travel to Lebanon and take a plane from there. The way it wasn’t safe at all. Nothing happened to us specifically, but it was known that it wasn’t safe. But we were lucky enough to pass through. A lot of people were getting stopped and they were preventing them from entering Lebanon, but we were lucky enough to get into Lebanon and into the airport.

JMS: You said earlier that a major factor in your decision to leave was that you were in danger. Were you targeted or just caught up in everything?

RM: Our house wasn’t in a dangerous area, I want to say. But at the end, all areas- you never knew what happens in what area. There were some areas that were completely destroyed. Our house was not in that area, but there were explosions that happened once in a while. You never knew if you were going to be in the street if that happened.

The biggest event that made my dad say ‘No, we’re leaving’ was we were all going to school, and we didn’t ride the bus because, at that time, there were bombings on buses. So my dad was like ‘I’ll give you all a ride.’ We were in the elevator, and my dad went down before us to get the car and park it right in front of the house so we don’t have to walk at all.

So he was there, and we were in the elevator and then a big bomb – a massive bomb – fell right on the door of our building. It was an apartment that we lived in. So right in front of the building, a bomb fell. My dad was in the car and he thought that we were gone. We’re dead. Because we usually hid behind the door so no one would see us and target us, and the bomb fell on the door.

So he was like ‘My kids are gone.’ But we were like a minute late. At the same time, we thought that our dad was gone because we heard the bomb but didn’t actually know where it fell. That was a big thing for us that made us leave.

JMS: You said you had to hide behind the door. What other ways did your life change? What other precautions did you have to take?

RM: That was in the early morning. So in the early morning, there’s not much people. That’s why we had to be really careful. So early morning and late night, we had to be real careful, but during the day, in our area, it wasn’t that bad. But in the early morning and late night, all areas were dangerous.

After I left I think it became a little more dangerous, but before I left, I would say for the first year, it was a little bit better during the day.

JMS: Your father’s soda factory – was that destroyed before or after you guys left?

RM: It got destroyed while we were here. They sent (my father) a picture of it. It was a really emotional thing for him.

JMS: Do you have any siblings?

RM: I have an older sister who’s married now. I have two younger sisters, one who is 10 and the other 12.

JMS: So now you’re in West Virginia. What was the hardest change?

RM: There were definitely a lot. Making friends was the tough part. I already knew English, but it wasn’t that perfect so I had to work on my language, too.

The lifestyle here is different. At 8:00 pm, life stops here because everyone goes back home. Back home, at 8, we just went out and the night starts. Here, if you want to go out at night, you just go to the bar or something, but me, as a Muslim, I can’t go hang out at the bar. I can’t drink with my friends. Back home at night, we would just go to the café or walk around or go to each other’s houses.

JMS: When we talked earlier, you said that high school was very hard for you. Can you talk more about that?

RM: The education part of high school wasn’t bad at all, because in Syria, we had a way tougher high school. So that wasn’t bad, but the making friends part, the social part, the talking part – that was the hard thing. I took a lot of time. Until I graduated from high school, I didn’t get used to life here. But after I got into college, it got much, much better. I met a lot of new people.

JMS: Do you think it was more the language barrier or do you think there was some racial tension, as well?

RM: In high school, there was not much diversity. I went to Morgantown High, and there was no diversity at all.  I don’t think they liked to make friends with people from other nationalities. That was some people. It wasn’t all of them, but I definitely felt that some people didn’t like me because I was from a different country or something.

But in college, I’m not feeling that, to be honest. I feel like there’s much, much more diversity. I was so happy.

 

JMS: As a Syrian who has been in America for a while,  how is it for you to see the country’s current reaction to the Syrian refugee crisis?

RM: Everyone thinks that if the refugees came here, they are just going to sit. They would take the help from the government but not work. They wouldn’t do anything. But actually, Syrians are hard workers. Most of them are educated. I know if they come here, they cannot sit without a job. They’re going to learn the language. That’s what bothers me the most.

I know a lot of people who made a lot of great stuff for the United States, and they’re good in their job and good in their field. And they came here and they did so well that… (America) should thank them for coming here. We can definitely make a difference. A good difference.

JMS: Do you ever think of how it would’ve been for you guys if you would’ve waited a few years to emigrate?

RM: Now, they’re accepting way less people. There’s not much acceptance as before because now people know about what’s happening. When I first came, a lot of people didn’t even know about what’s happening in Syria. Now that many people know that there are a lot of refugees… A lot of them are not accepting. The idea of refugees. Even the government is not accepting people.

JMS: Have you been treated any differently since it became more of a global issue?

RM: Not really. I already knew people and had friends. If they would treat me differently, they aren’t true friends.

JMS: Do you ever want to go back?

RM: Definitely.

JMS: Do you even think it’s a possibility?

RM: I don’t think it’s possible for now, but I would love to go back. I would definitely go back and visit if things go better. After I finish education, if things got better, I might move back there. I really miss it so much. I feel homesick many days.

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5 thoughts on “Starting Over: A Syrian Family’s Journey to Morgantown, West Virginia

  1. I had so many different emotions while reading this story. Racil has such a scary, interesting but saddening story with her having to leave all her friends in family in Syria. Her family experienced so many frightening things and I can’t even imagine being in a situation like some of the ones she was put in. While reading the portion about the bomb going off in their apartment, my heart stopped. I would be so scared and just lost and not know what to do, especially because she was separated from her father and they weren’t sure if the other was alive. I just cant imagine. She shows incredible strength through her narratives about her life and this whole interview was just really good. She really provided a lot of insight into her culture and her life, that made me feel closer to her because of her story. I am thankful that things ended up okay for her and her family.

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  2. I really enjoyed this story. It was very emotional, and I found myself wishing there was more to it.The part about the bomb going off in her apartment building was rough to read. I can’t imagine that happening to my family. And the bombers sent her dad a picture of his destroyed factory? Wow. Just wow. But, I’m glad she adapted to life here, but I can imagine being so far from her real home was hard.

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    1. I actually don’t think the bombers themselves sent the father pictures of the factory. I imagine that some family friends that stayed around sent it to him.

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  3. This is an amazing story. I like how in-depth it was. I was really able to visualize what was going on, and my heart goes out to her. It’s great that she was able to get here, but she shouldn’t have had to in the first place. I can’t imagine going through the things she went through so good job portraying it for people like me who have no first-hand experience in these kinds of hardships.

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  4. Wow. What an incredible story. I loved the use of the map and the set up of the interview– it made it seem like we were actually listening to a conversation and not reading an edited version. It seems she was so open about telling her story. Sometimes it’s hard to get people who have gone through so much, and those who have adjusted to a completely different culture to let others into their lives, but it seems Racil really let you in John Mark. That’s really cool. I really liked how she talked about the biggest change being the nightlife after 8 o’clock– very different.

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