Layla Darwish looks up from the sidewalk and greets a Syrian woman waving down from her second-floor apartment. Darwish just saw her yesterday, but the woman tells her it’s been a long time.
“That’s quite common,” Darwish said. “A lot of them are kind of territorial. They want you to spend more time with them.”
Darwish works part time for Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries. But she pretty much spends all her waking hours helping Syrians who have just moved to Fresno.
Layla Darwish hugs a Syrian child outside a cluster of apartment buildings where many refugees live.
Most Syrian refugees in the United States live in resettlement areas, cities that get federal funding to help these newcomers start over. But some Syrians in California are now migrating on their own to this Central Valley city where there’s a large and welcoming Arab-American community and rents are cheaper.
Like Mohammed Bachan. He and his family came to the U.S. after fleeing Syria and then living in a refugee camp in Jordan. When he moved to Fresno, he was worried. Once refugees leave a resettlement area like San Diego, or in Bachan’s case, Turlock, the resources don’t travel with them. Darwish interprets for him.
“Because they didn’t know where to start,” she said. “In the beginning, there was a local mosque that helped them just network with people. And then once FIRM came in, we started taking them to the DMV to get their permits, their driving lessons.”
A few decades ago, Hmong refugees from Laos lived in this cluster of low-rent apartment complexes. The apartments run about $450 for a two-bedroom unit. But there are drawbacks. Rental deposits for Syrians are high, Darwish said.
“Because they don’t have a credit history and because they don’t have a rental agreement history, they have to pay anywhere from, like, $600 to $900,” she said.
And the area isn’t always safe.
“There have been a number of attacks from the neighborhood gangs, anywhere from throwing stones, knives. The police have been called lately,” she said.
Because Fresno is not a resettlement city, it doesn’t receive any federal funding to help Syrian refugees. FIRM Director Zack Darrah said he’s partnering with local Islamic cultural centers, churches and advocacy groups to help Syrians find better housing. He also relies on donations.
“The dollars are very challenging, and also because it’s a polarizing issue. I’ve spoken at places that blatantly do not agree with the work we’re doing,” he said.
About 200 Syrians have migrated on their own to Fresno, most in the past year. Some have found jobs in a local chicken processing plant. Darrah expects more refugees.
“I’ve gotten calls from Indiana, from Florida, from Texas, San Diego, San Jose,” he said.
There are lots of volunteers to help. People have donated cars and their time.
Like Kathleen Chavoor-Bergen. She’s part of Fresno’s large Armenian community Her grandparents fled to Aleppo, Syria, during the genocide. Now she regularly visits and cooks meals with several Syrian families.
“It’s really the least I can do,” she said. “They opened their arms to my family, and now I’m opening my arms to theirs.”
There’s been enough of a migration here that the International Rescue Committee was considering Fresno as a future resettlement city. But that was before President Trump’s travel ban put the refugee program on hold.