The Days Inn on E Fletcher Avenue didn’t look like a pit stop on anyone’s path to the American dream. The chain motel, tucked into the elbow of a freeway exit in the north Tampa sprawl, was more than 6,500 miles from the Syrian village outside Aleppo that Momen Alsaloum and his family used to call home.
Along with more than 4.8 million other Syrians, they fled the violence that killed some 400,000 of their countrymen. Now more than five years after leaving everything behind, even the family photo albums, they settled into a cluster of hotel rooms with cream-colored walls. Their American journey was just beginning.
On a January afternoon, just days after they arrived, Momen stood anxiously in the doorway, unsure of what their future would hold. Inside, his wife, Nahed, pulled a sweater over the head of their squirming baby boy, Riad. Outside, traffic on Interstate 275 hummed by.
The Alsaloums were a family in limbo.
In 2011, their lives were normal. Momen, the fifth of seven children, was a 16-year-old student learning to be an electrician. He lived with his family in a one-story white house. Oranges, grapes and olives grew in the backyard. Then the bombs began to fall. Their neighbors’ homes were destroyed. A civil war was beginning.
At first, the Alsaloums sought refuge on an abandoned farm. There was water to drink in the well, and aid organizations brought them canned lentils, tomatoes and beans, but only enough for one meal a day.
Roughly three years later, they left for Turkey with only the clothes on their backs. “We lost everything,” Momen said through a translator. Two of the six brothers crossed first. They worked in construction, saving up money to send back so the next group could afford a smuggler’s fee. The others crossed in waves as money and opportunity allowed. For a while, nine members of the family shared a single room.
By the end of 2014, most of the family had made it to the Hatay Province. But without a program for refugees to work toward permanent residency, Turkey could not be their home.
They applied for refugee status and resettlement with the United Nations.
As Syrians, the Alsaloums underwent more vetting than people from other countries. Their information was run through the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the FBI.
The family faced long odds. The United Nations defines a refugee as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence.” Of those granted refugee status, only the most vulnerable are referred to the United States and other countries for permanent resettlement. Less than 1 percent of refugees worldwide are deemed adequately vulnerable for referral.
The Alsaloums were outliers, the lucky few. After more than two years in Turkey, most of the family was bound for America.
Eight of them landed at Tampa International Airport on Jan. 23. Four others arrived on Jan. 26. The next day, President Donald Trump signed an executive order halting the entry of Syrian refugees and citizens of six other Muslim-majority nations. Momen’s two oldest brothers were still in Turkey, and his only sister still in Syria. As travelers were detained at airports across the United States and barred from entry, the Alsaloums wondered if they would ever see the rest of their family again.
The Alsaloums were the last refugee family to make it to the Tampa Bay area before the travel ban sparked nationwide confusion. Their case manager, Rana Al Sarraf, of the resettlement agency Coptic Orthodox Charities, delivered them to the Days Inn. When she returned the next day, the patriarch of the family, 53-year-old Riad, became unresponsive during an orientation lesson. Al Sarraf called 911, and soon he was taken to Florida Hospital Tampa to be treated for his worsening spinal cancer. His wife, Jamila, stayed by his side day and night.
Back at the motel, four of Riad’s sons, two of their wives and four grandchildren kept each other company. The kids played with an inflatable toy plane from Turkish Airlines. The adults worked to learn the days of the week in English on Days Inn stationery.
The 12 had escaped the violence that plagued their homeland for good. But they were in a country where they did not speak the language or understand the culture, with little in the way of money or applicable work experience. And they were coming at a time when their presence was more controversial than ever, with the new administration raising questions about whether Syrians posed a security threat.
Their guides were Al Sarraf and her boss, Amira Salama, the resettlement agency’s executive director. On an early February day, Al Sarraf took the family to an apartment arranged for them in north Tampa. Roaches filled crevices in a bedroom closet. Mysterious stains covered the walls. The children had insect bites after crawling on the floor.
Salama arrived as the family unpacked. After walking through the apartment, she stepped outside to consult with Al Sarraf and another colleague, Zeyad Abduljaber, in Arabic. Momen’s sister-in-law Kawthar listened from the nearby doorway, her infant daughter Jamila in her arms.
Salama was not happy the unit hadn’t been cleaned or furnished. It fell far short of her standards but would have to do. Motels cost too much and apartments were few and far between. In recent months, it had become increasingly difficult to find landlords willing to rent to refugees.
For now, the Alsaloums would do their best to make it their home. Meanwhile, Salama and Al Sarraf, devoted to the families they serve, continued the search for permanent apartments. They needed three – one for each family unit – all within walking distance. Riad, the ailing patriarch, would be released from the hospital soon, but needed to be close to his sons in case of medical emergencies. It was a tall order, but Salama and Al Sarraf would not give up.
Waiting rooms were a constant in the early days. The Social Security offices. The Florida Department of Children and Families. Lutheran Services Florida. They waited for appointment after appointment, shuttled to each by their case manager Al Sarraf or someone she sent.
When the kids needed immunizations in mid-February, Momen and his family found themselves waiting quietly in a pediatrician’s office, where the clock ticked an hour and 19 minutes behind. An inspirational poster shouted “commitment.” Kawthar and Nahed trained their eyes on a television screen playing Finding Dory, though neither could understand the dialogue. The children grew restless as the wait dragged on.
As the oldest brother who could read, Momen took on more responsibilities in the family unit. He needed to learn English so they wouldn’t be forever dependent on their case manager to serve as translator.
With the help of Al Sarraf, he signed up for the CARIBE program, an adult education project for refugees funded by the state Department of Children and Families. His older brother Amin went as well, but had been placed in a different class because he couldn’t read or write Arabic. For the first day of class on Feb. 28, Momen wore a donated T-shirt with the words “Southeastern University” emblazoned across the chest.
The program was held in a one-story Hillsborough County public school building sandwiched between a technical college and a Walmart. Instructor Jose Similus, an English-learner himself, wore a shirt and tie. He began the lesson by pointing to the words above the classroom’s whiteboard: “Your Success Begins Here!”
Similus quizzed his class on the vocabulary of human anatomy. He named the words for various body parts and waited for students to point to them. Momen looked around for visual cues. He was often the last one to end up with his hand in place.
He didn’t share a continent of origin with most of his classmates, but they were united in their desperate need to learn English. None of them would get far in America without it.
Riad Alsaloum died on June 7, 135 days after arriving on American soil.
He spent most of that time within the confines of Florida Hospital Tampa. Though he was released to his family on several occasions, the respites from IVs and cafeteria food never lasted long. Complications from the cancer sent him back to the hospital each time. Riad didn’t live long enough to see much of the United States. He did, however, live to see four of his sons and four of his grandchildren start new lives in a new world.
Momen, alongside his brothers, washed his father’s body the day he died. Hours later, Momen helped carry his casket into the mosque and then to his gravesite.
At only 22, Momen was growing into a family leader. He ferried his family around town in a donated minivan after taking his road test and earning a driver’s license. He worked at a Tampa car wash with two of his brothers. “Life is very hard here, but I have to start from the beginning to make a new life,” he said through a translator. Momen carried more responsibility than most his age.
On June 15, during the holy month of Ramadan, Momen and Amin went to the mosque as they did each night around 8 p.m. There they worked directing traffic at peak prayer hours. Before the main rush began, the brothers headed inside with other early arrivers to pray. For the next few hours they’d wave flashlights in the dark, sipping on cups of coffee and tea.
In Syria, the violence persists. The civilian death toll continues to rise. There is no end in sight to the war that drove the Alsaloums from their village. After a legal challenge stayed the travel ban for months, the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed a limited ban to resume. But Momen and his family no longer keep gas masks at the ready. They’ve found a new home.