Taking Refuge

Picture: CC BY-SA 3.0, Yossi Hareishone (Disclaimer: This photo is not of Sarah's recipe.)

Life Across Four Countries

The interview for this story was conducted in Arabic and kindly translated by Oula Abdulhamid Alrifai, an analyst at the Navanti Group and participant in Taking Refuge.

November 9, 2015

*Sarah and her family left Damascus, Syria on July 10, 2013. At each checkpoint they carefully repeated their story: they were headed to Lebanon for vacation - a white lie under the circumstances.

Already, it was impossible to leave Syria by plane - airports had closed due to intensified fighting. Syria's civil war was well under way.

Sarah was scared, but lucky to have three of her children with her. Her two eldest sons had already left the country. Since they were approaching age eighteen, it especially wasn't safe for them in Syria. On their eighteenth birthdays they would be drafted into the army, and asylum would become a pipedream.

Sarah's husband had passed away years before. But, she was leaving her mother behind, along with other relatives, in Syria. This is what pained her most. Not her home that was destroyed by the government's bombs; not the massacre that killed approximately 400 neighbors in her Damascus suburb of Daraya; but her mom, too old to make the journey to safety.

After the Daraya massacre (August, 2012) - the single worse attack by the Syrian government in the conflict's history thus far, Sarah thought she and her family would die. Her neighborhood continued to be heavily shelled by the regime and there was no place to take refuge.

So though it was difficult to say goodbye, she and her children packed their bags and left the following summer. From Lebanon, they flew to Turkey, where they stayed for a year and a half.

Her son's wife and baby boy had made the journey to Turkey as well. Though born without any complications, Sarah's grandchild soon developed a condition in which he suffered from severe seizures. Her son reached out to organizations to help find treatment and was referred to the United Nations (UN) - an institution the family had never even heard of before.

Although the family could not find treatment for the baby boy in Turkey, the UN took on their case, helping them apply for asylum in the United States.

Ten months and several interviews later, Sarah, two of her sons, her daughter-in-law, and grandchild were on their way to America.

She remembers being very excited when she landed in Texas on January 7, 2015. Here, she could find adequate medical treatment for her grandchild, while her sons could find work and further their education.

And America has been good to Sarah. She's made friends with Americans and Syrians alike. At fifty-eight years old, she has had trouble learning English, but she says she never feels alone thanks to her new friends. One memory in particular stands out for Sarah:

When I first got here, some Americans who spoke Arabic took me to church with them. I am not Christian; I am Muslim. But, they wanted to introduce me to the community. They were so welcoming. I don't know what I would do without them.

Still, not all is perfect. Sarah's daughter remains in Turkey, married to an Arabic-speaking Turkish man. Though seemingly a solicitous man, the husband became abusive. Sarah's daughter took her case to court, only to be warned that if she didn't drop the case, her child would be taken away and given to the husband. The situation is still unresolved.

Sarah also worries about one of her sons, now in Germany. He had fled earlier to avoid conscription by the Syrian army. First, he went to Egypt, but when his wife became pregnant, he went to Germany to try to arrange asylum for them in the United States. Now, his wife is six months pregnant and his case, too, remains unresolved.

Sarah, herself, suffers from physical trauma and high blood pressure. She has trouble with movement and requires medication. Nevertheless, she wants only for her son and daughter to join the family in America.

I would do anything and everything to make sure they are safe, happy, and secure.

Unlike Sarah's family, the majority of Syrian refugees have not been granted asylum. Thousands of people are applying, but bureaucratic red tape impedes the process, stymying the hope and safety of families just like Sarah's.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you," said Sarah at the end of our conversation. "The world needs to know what is going on."

*This name has been changed to protect the individual's identity.

Mulukhiyah is a green leaf vegetable used to make this dish, a cross between soup and stew. It's often cooked with chicken and served with rice, but can easily be made vegetarian as well. It's nearly impossible to find fresh mulukhiyah leaves in the United States, but from some quick research, I found you can buy dried leaves on good old Amazon.

  • 100g dried mulukhiyah (or fresh if you can find it!)
  • Chicken breast on the bone
  • 8 cloves of garlic
  • 1 tablespoon of ground coriander
  • 1 cube of chicken stock
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • Salt and pepper

  1. Soak the mulukhiyah leaves in plenty of cold water for two hours.
  2. Place the chicken breast in a pot, cover it with water, and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer. Add the chicken stock cube and the onion. Cook until the chicken is completely cooked and then remove it from the stock.
  3. Drain the mulukhiyah leaves, making sure to wash off any slime. Add the leaves and five of the garlic cloves (each cut in half) to the stock. Shred the chicken meat and return it to the pot. Cook until the mulukhiya is ready, about 20-30 minutes.
  4. Depending on whether you prefer your mulukhiya more soup-like or stew-like, you may choose to drain the stock.
  5. Crush the remaining three garlic cloves. Add this garlic and the coriander to the mulukhiyah and cook for an additional three minutes.
  6. Add salt and pepper to taste. The dish is also recommended with a bit of chilli pepper and lemmon.