Zubair Rushk flipped open his laptop at a coffee shop and plugged Arabic into a translator function to come up with the English words for the crimes he had been accused of in Syria.
“Danger to state security,” showed up on the screen.
Rushk, a Kurd from Al-Qamishli, a northeastern Syrian city on the Turkish border, then told a gripping story about fleeing his homeland to embark on a five-year journey that brought him to this country as a refugee.
A resident of Carrboro now, separated by thousands of miles from his wife, parents, seven brothers and four sisters, the 33-year-old worries that politicians are twisting the details of the refugee experience either out of a misunderstanding or to pander to nativists.
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After the terrorist attacks in Paris last week and authorities contentions that the mastermind spent time in Syria with the Islamic State, there has been a growing political backlash against Syrians. More than half the country’s governors have called for a halt to Syrian refugees, contending that federal security measures are inadequate to keep terrorists out of this country. On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to toughen the screening process.
As many refugees already in this country worry about speaking out in the current political climate, Rushk, a Syrian refugee who became a U.S. citizen this summer, said he thought it was necessary.
“I feel like they’re trying to divide the country,” Rushk said of the politicians who contend their stance is necessary to keep residents safe.
Jailed for teaching Kurdish language
Rushk, a soft-spoken man with a quick smile, left his country in 2005. That was years before the current Syrian Civil War began against the backdrop of the Arab Spring protests.
Even then, Syria was a complex web of regional alliances and differences, and Rushk was troubled that Syrian minorities – Kurds, Assyrians and Turkmen, were only taught Arabic in schools.
With the notion that it was important for Kurdish children to learn their mother tongue, Rushk set up a school inside his home where he and several others taught the Kurdish language to 30 to 40 children, ranging in age from 3 to 14.
“It was important to me because of my belief that they should keep their culture, learn about their culture and their language,” Rushk explained Thursday evening.
Then one day, several people showed up at his house and began to ask him about the program. That same day, Rushk ended up on the cold, hard floor of a prison room, accused of being a danger to government security. There were 83 people in the small prison cell and no beds. The prisoners had to take turns sleeping, 10 or so at a time, while others crammed together to make space.
The prisoners got one meal a day. The only water available was in the toilet bowl. Rushk suffered sexual and verbal assaults and beatings so brutal that he lost partial memory temporarily. Not once while he was imprisoned did Rushk see a judge or have access to a lawyer. His family did not know where he was. They thought he might have left the country.
“They didn’t deal with you as a human,” he said of his prison experience.
Fled to Lebanon seeking asylum
Rushk was in prison for about seven months. After his release, the jailers threatened to court martial him and keep charging him with crimes that would extend his imprisonment. A lawyer suggested that Rushk flee the country.
So one night with bribe money in his pockets, Rushk left everything behind – his belongings, his family and the woman he would eventually marry.
He entered Lebanon and went to Beirut where he immediately sought asylum and refugee status from the United Nations.
In Lebanon’s capital city, Rushk received direly needed psychological and physical therapy from his prison experience and he began to rebuild his life. He and a friend opened a cellphone company that built upon the engineering and telecommunications degrees he had received in his homeland.
For several years, he had no idea whether his request for refugee status would be granted.
Then one day, news came. The International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental organization established in the 1950s to help resettle people displaced by World War II, wanted more information.
He was able to get papers from home and other proof to help support his application.
But there was more. He was interviewed at the U.S. Embassy and sent to an American hospital for a full physical. Then there were background checks and more psychological testing and questions over more than one day.
“It takes two years of waiting, which is painful for any human,” Rushk said. “You are waiting without knowing what will happen to your file.”
Then one day in 2010, Rushk got the call he had been hoping for. The United Nations put him in contact with the American Embassy. His file was among those selected for the refugee resettlement program.
Before he could leave Lebanon, he had to pay $500 for being in the country without legal papers. Then he received a passport.
Wait over; journey to U.S. begins
Then began his journey to the United States, a country built by immigrants that wants to further slow the process for Syrians fleeing the war-torn Middle East.
In a whirl of days, Rushk went from Los Angeles to Philadelphia to Raleigh-Durham Airport, where he was greeted by workers from World Relief Durham, a refugee resettlement organization.
He had been through a course in which new arrivals are taught about driving laws, gun laws, things that will be expected of them, cultural trends and such customary things as to dial 9-1-1 when in an emergency or threatening situation. They also see a movie.
Everything else was new.
Rushk was driven from RDU to an apartment in Durham. One month of his rent had been provided, as had food stamps to get him through his first month. “They tell you to start looking for a job immediately,” Rushk said.
Though he knew Arabic, Kurdish Sorani and Turkish, Rushk had to learn English as he looked for work.
He worked as a housekeeper in a hotel and after losing that job was a dishwasher at The Cheesecake Factory.
He has been taking classes at Durham Tech with plans to enroll soon at UNC-Chapel Hill and someday become a surgeon. “If I even can help one person in my life, I will be the happiest person for it,” Rushk said during a study break for an organics chemistry course. “I’m on the right track.”
Seeking help as he waits for his wife
Rushk worries though that the woman he hopes to build this new life with – Etan, an agriculture student whose university in Syria was just closed because of conflict in the region – will now be blocked from joining him because of the current focus on Syrians.
He has sought help from U.S. Rep. David Price, a Democrat from Chapel Hill, and hopes a recent message from U.S. immigration officials seeking more information, is a good sign.
The two have been married since 2013, when they wed to little fanfare while Rushk was at a conference in Turkey. They initially planned to wait for her to finish school before she moved to the United States. When her school closed this summer, Rushk stepped up his efforts to bring her to the Triangle.
As he waits, he continues his schooling, volunteers with Habitat for Humanity, the Durham food pantry and at a Durham Tech farm project. He enjoys kayaking and camping at North Carolina parks and beaches with a science club, and he mentors other refugees.
Rushk, a Muslim whose faith is not a big part of his life, loves living in the western part of the Triangle, and says he thinks Durham, Chapel Hill and Carrboro are more welcoming to immigrants than some places. He says he does not understand the politicians targeting the refugees, nor does he like the political rhetoric against Muslims. While studying for his U.S. citizenship, he learned about the Constitution and the Civil War.
“They should not make this about religion or about refugees,” Rushk said. “ I don’t believe it’s right to divide this country.”