Syrian Refugees Adjust to Life in Mid-Missouri as Refuge Population Increases

Hope Howard

COLUMBIA – Since the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, the U.N. Refugee Agency claims that nearly 5 million people have fled the country. Although Syria is 6,464 miles away from Columbia, hundreds of refugees have made mid-Missouri their home within the last few years.

According to data from the Refugee Processing Center, in 2015, 1,362 refugees came to Missouri. Since 2016, the numbers have nearly doubled, with currently 2,439 refugees coming to Missouri from nations all over the world.

Ahmad Alkadah, a refugee from Syria who relocated to Columbia in 2016, said he was worried when he arrived.

“As a father, husband and son I was thinking about how to start. What if I start wrong? I was thinking about my family,” said Alkadah. “I had no choice in choosing Missouri, but I am very grateful.” 

Once refugees arrive in mid-Missouri, resources such as the Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri and City of Refuge are available to help them. The City of Refuge is a “non-profit organization created to help and serve refugees and immigrants in mid-Missouri,” according to its website.

At City of Refuge, refugees can get assistance opening a bank account, applying to college and finding affordable housing, along with many other tasks.

Barry Stoll, the executive director of City of Refuge, has seen the increase of refugees here.

“Columbia is a very hospitable town for refugees,” said Stoll. “Columbia is one of a few communities that has a large number of secondary refugees. These are people who don’t have an organization to help them in whatever town they have landed. They have friends in Columbia and they use their last $50 to move here because it is so hospitable. We have had [refugees] from Dallas, San Antonio, Buffalo, Utah and Minnesota [relocate to Columbia.] There are people moving here all from the U.S. because they are finding out that people here in town care about them.”

Even though Stoll has interacted with many secondary refugees, who chose to follow their friends or families to Columbia, Alkadah said that his family did not have the same luxury.

“I couldn’t be more appreciative. I just want people in Missouri to remember I did not choose to be a refugee,” said Alkadah. “I didn’t choose this life. I just want this community to accept me.”

 Alkadah’s mother, Lamaa, said that their journey to America was not easy. She said that one night, when their family was living together in Syria, men from the government came to their house and demanded to take her son.

“They gave me two options. They would kill him in front of me or they would take him to an investigation center,” said Lamaa. “I just remember begging them to not kill him.”

 After Alkadah returned home from the investigation center, the family decided they needed to leave Syria. They moved to Jordan and then the U.S., but they had to leave part of their family behind in the process. Alkadah’s sisters are living in Jordan, but hope to come to the U.S. soon.

 Alkadah’s wife, Samira, who came to Missouri with their daughter Ilin, has had a different experience living in mid-Missouri than her husband. Although Samira would describe her life in Missouri as “happy,” she said she misses home deeply and is worried that other students will not accept her daughter at school because their family is different. Samira said she has been too overwhelmed to enroll her daughter in pre-school, but is hoping to find a school for Ilin in the next few months.

 “When I came to Columbia, I was worried about the culture and community. I had a young baby and my heart aches for her,” said Samira. “I want her to know her cousins [who live in Syria]. I want her to learn Arabic and English, but I am afraid to start her [at] school here.”

Since Samira’s primary job is to stay at home with their daughter, she said she finds most of her time is spent missing her family who live in the Middle East.

“I feel isolated – so very much. I am missing home because it is hard to build relationships with neighbors here,” said Samira.  “I get interaction by going to Walmart, but it is sometimes hard to connect.”

Stoll said that the language barrier is one of the most challenging things refugees have to face when coming to America. To help refugees living in mid-Missouri, Stoll encourages Missourians to “reach out” and treat them as one would treat a friend.

 “They are an asset. They are friendly. They offer cultural diversity and beauty in a developing community,” said Stoll. “The more we befriend and accept and reach out to them, as we do a friend, the better. And that leads to helping them with practical things.”

Alkadah said he has had both bad and good experiences in Columbia.

“Some people here don’t like that I am Muslim or from Syria. But Missouri has been a good place,” said Alkadah. “I started from zero. When I came to the United States I started moving up. There was hope.”

Although their family is still adjusting to life in Missouri, they are still worrying about Alkadah’s sisters’ safety in Jordan. Lamma said she hopes they will able to come to the U.S. soon.

 “I lost everything when I left for America. All of my family, my daughters are in Jordan,” said Lamaa. “Now that I am in a safe area, I can’t help but worry about the people I left behind. I learned that if you are in heaven and you are alone, you are not really in heaven at all.