7 April

RISSE: The Refugee’s Story

by Jon Katz
The Refugee’s Story: Classroom, RISSE refugee aid center, Albany, N.Y.

I spoke with Raffat Friday afternoon, some hours after American missiles struck the Syrian air force base believe to have housed the aircraft that dropped the poison gas believed to have killed two dozen Syrian children.

I knew his story and wanted to talk to him about the news.

Raffat , who is in his late 40’s, came to America ago two months ago, before immigration from Syria to the United States was banned. He lives near Troy, N.Y., he buried two dead children before he left and his wife was buried in rubble from a bomb attack near the village of Aleppo, his wife’s body was never found.

His house was destroyed, along with his office and his belongings.

His older son disappeared while walking to work, he believes he was taken by soldiers and is almost certainly dead. “No one who is taken returns,” he said.

He was in a refugee camp for nearly two years before he was chosen by a United Nations screening group in a lottery to come to America. He was investigated and screened and is here legally.

He works in Schnectady, N.Y., he manages a grocery store and lives above it in a two-room apartment. In Syria, he was an orthopedist in a local hospital that was bombed by government planes. In January, the U.N. refugee program that saved him was shut down. No Syrian  refugees are coming to America now.

He works, pays taxes, is no drain on government or other services in the U.S. He is no threat to anyone.

He does not have the money or the strength to be certified here as  a doctor, it would take years and cost tens of thousands of dollars.

How, I asked him when we first talked, does he live with all of this? “Sometimes, my heart feels dead, empty,” he said. “I only live to try to get my parents and cousins out. I feel like I am dead inside most of the time.  After my parents….” I don’t know Raffat well, I hope to take his picture one day, his portrait would be powerful

Because his parents and cousins remain trapped in Syria, in their village and a refugee camp near the Turkish border, he politely declined to be photographed. He had been told, he said, that America was a country where he could speak freely and in safety, but he now believes that is  not true.

And he fears reprisals against his father and mother if his face was shown. In America, people have treated him courteously, he said, but nobody wants to get too close. Mostly, people avoid him. He is well-educated and well-spoken, his English is very strong

“I saw on the news that the missile attack happened because of the pictures and videos of the children who are dead. I could send them many more photographs of dead children, including my own.” Raffat asked me to look at a Syrian human rights website that tracks the casualties from the civil war, and while he was on the phone, I went online and found the site. It is a heartbreaking site in so many ways.

The Syrian refugees go to it a hundred times a day, he said.

Human rights and United Nations workers report that 470,000 Syrians have been killed in the civil war, 55,000 of them children.  Millions of Syrians languish in refugee campaigns, hoping to emigrate to Europe or American. All across the world, the doors are being closed to them.

it is a difficult thing to comprehend, and it is especially piercing when I see the faces of the refugee children at RISSE, the refugee immigrant and support center in Albany. RISSE’s offices were destroyed in a fire set by arsonists last year, the tires on their vans were slashed. The building re-opened recently. The children feel safe in their classrooms here, resilient and at ease with one another,  far from madness and misery. Many have escaped horrors in Africa or Asia, but some of the worst slaughter of children has been in Syria.

“Our children have been dying for years now, in unimaginable numbers,” he said, “why can’t we try to save those that are still alive? As a father, it was my duty to protect my family. I failed them, I failed everyone,  there is no forgiveness for this.”

Raffat says most of the adult casualties are men, breadwinners and heads of families, their wives and children are often helpless and unprotected, they flood the refugee camps in Turkey and the countries of Europe. “These are not terrorists,” he said, “they are the victims of terrorists. They have nowhere to go.”

He urged me to see a documentary called Children Of Syria, about four orphans from Aleppo made it to a new life in Germany. He has watched it 100 times, he imagines when he sees it that perhaps his son is alive, and also got out of Syria. “I know he is not one of them, but I just dream it,” he says. And weeps.

Sometimes, he says he prays that he is dead, and died quickly. Then he is ashamed.

Raffat said if I wished, he could show me photographs of his dead and missing children. Maybe, he said, that will change things, since the poison gas photos did, that, he said, seemed to change things in Washington. I said I would love to see them. I will post them on my blog, I said, so that they can be seen and remembered.

I asked him about the missiles. “This is what politicians do,” he said. “They can replace a few planes,” he said, “this will not save a single child, or free one of them from horrible camps. Thousands more children die every week from bombs and bullets and disease and starvation than are killed by poison gas. No one cares about them, no one tries to stop it or punish anyone for it,  the children who die in so many other ways. There are thousands of pictures of dead and wounded children in Syria. They don’t need gas to kill children, they know many ways to do it. The world has closed their hearts to them, America has closed its heart to them.  Are the missiles for the children? The children can’t eat missiles or fill their bellies or be warm with them.  The bombs will still fall on them. We all know that by next week no one will be paying attention to the dying and dead children of Syria any more. I know. “

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