By Robert Mann
If you live in Baton Rouge, you may have passed her in a grocery store. You may have seen her at a local high school, dropping off her two daughters, ages 15 and 16. If you spoke with her briefly, you might suppose she had lived here a decade or more. She speaks English well (only mildly accented and slightly broken). Her style of dress is western. She is Muslim but wears no hijab.
Appearances are deceiving. Until last summer, she and her teenage daughters lived in war-ravaged Damascus, Syria, waiting for the right moment to flee for the United States to join her husband and then 23-year-old daughter, who had left for Houston in January. She, her husband and oldest daughter had refused to declare allegiance to the government of President Bashar al-Assad; they all feared death or arrest at the hands of Syrian government forces.
Even now, months after bolting for the Lebanon border and eventually flying to the United States on tourist visas, the woman speaks only on condition that her real name not be published. (In order to protect her family’s safety, she is referred to here as “Razan.”)
“I refused to say anything (for or against the government),” Razan, 45, told me last Monday at a coffee shop in Baton Rouge, where her family now lives. “I’m just a mother trying to protect a family.”
Razan said Syrian officials sent the police to arrest her in May. The principal of the school where she worked had friends in the government who could stave off her arrest temporarily. In June, she and her daughters fled Damascus abruptly. They did not say goodbye to family and friends.
They wanted to settle with her husband’s sister in Houston, but the house was overcrowded. So, a cousin in Baton Rouge offered them his apartment. In September, they went to New Orleans to meet with federal officials and formally applied for political asylum; an attorney with Catholic Charities is assisting them with their claim.
They now await their formal interview, she says, but “we are kind of legal now.”
“Kind of” are the operative words. They cannot work because they have no permanent resident status, nor Social Security cards (political asylum would afford them both). They survive on the cash savings they carried with them when they left Syria.
Despite the adjustment to their new American life and the limitations their legal limbo imposes, they are grateful to Baton Rouge and its people. They’ve been welcomed by members of a local Christian group.
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