Long before two families fleeing Syria’s civil war arrived in Los Angeles last week, Yvette Khani and her colleagues at the International Rescue Committee were busy making preparations.
They made sure the homes where the families would be staying were clean and stocked with familiar Middle Eastern foods. They offered to pick the refugees up at the airport.
The families are part of the first wave of Syrian war refugees who have arrived for resettlement in California, including 179 in the 12 months that ended Sept. 30, according to the State Department. That number is expected to increase rapidly as the U.S. expands its commitment to offer asylum to Syrians, pledging to take in at least 10,000 in the next 12 months.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have sought refuge in Europe, where a growing humanitarian crisis has spurred debate about to what degree peaceful countries are obliged to help foreigners fleeing war.
The two families coming to L.A. were placed with relatives living in Pomona and Cypress, and each member was given a stipend of just over $1,000. They declined to be interviewed.
In the coming months, Khani and the Glendale-based International Rescue Committee of Los Angeles, one of several agencies contracted by the government to resettle refugees, will help them find work, enroll in school and even drive them to job interviews and doctor appointments.
Khani, herself a refugee who came to the U.S. from Iran in 1995, said support in those first few months is crucial.
“The U.S. was so different,” she said of her own experience. “It was like a whole new world.”
The journey here is not easy.
The recent arrivals applied for resettlement from Egypt, where they fled after Syria erupted into civil war in 2011, Khani said.
It can take two or more years for U.S. officials to process applications for resettlement, most of which are referred to the U.S. and other countries that have agreed to accept refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Each applicant undergoes medical exams, a security check and an in-person interview with immigration officers at the Department of Homeland Security.
Candidates must prove they meet the legal definition of a refugee, which includes having a well-founded fear of persecution based on one of five protected grounds — race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.
After living in the U.S. for a year, refugees may apply for a green card.
Of the about 70,000 refugees admitted to the U.S. in the last year, 1,682 were from Syria, according to the State Department.
Larry Bartlett, director of the State Department’s Office of Refugee Admissions, said about 70% of those admitted have family members living in the U.S. The government often tries to place refugees with or near family, and in cities that are relatively cheap and do not have high levels of unemployment.
The two California regions that have received the largest number of Syrians so far — 50 in the Sacramento area and 53 in San Diego — are both home to Syrian immigrant communities that predate the civil war.
Only 19 Syrians have been resettled in the Los Angeles area, but Martin Zogg, executive director of the IRC in Los Angeles, said he expects many more in the coming years because the region has one of the largest Syrian communities in the U.S.
California, along with Texas, has long been a top destination for refugees, welcoming Vietnamese to Orange County in the 1970s and Iraqis to San Diego in more recent years.
Robert Moser, deputy director of Catholic Charities at the Diocese of San Diego, said he expects this wave of immigration to be no different.
“Another day, another group,” said Moser, whose organization has resettled more than 7,000 Iraqis in San Diego, and recently resettled its first Syrian family. He noted that resettlement efforts often go unnoticed in California’s diverse communities, except in schools.
As part of the process, each new arrival is connected with a case worker, who helps them obtain Social Security cards, sign up for county medical services and apply for food stamps. The refugees are enrolled in employment preparation programs and classes familiarizing them with U.S. customs.
Topics include practical necessities — such as learning the bus system — as well as more delicate cultural matters. An example: Although it may be common to swat misbehaving children in public in Syria, refugees are told corporal punishment is less acceptable in the U.S.
Babrak Noor, 37, a refugee from Afghanistan who was resettled in Reseda in 2013, said he remembers feeling a bit bewildered by instructions that he lock his doors and windows and that his children not to talk to strangers.
Job hunting was another reality check. Noor, who once had a good job in an office in Kabul, had to settle for work as a valet, and now as a security officer.
His advice to newcomers from Syria: Culture shock will fade with time, but the longing for one’s homeland may never go away. Frequent video chats ease homesickness, he said.
He remembers his first few days after arriving in Los Angeles. He and his wife and two children had traveled 30 hours after saying goodbye to all that they knew.
“We were really tired,” he said. “But we were happy.”