It is no exaggeration to say Yara and Yazan escaped war-torn Syria by the skin of their teeth.
The day they left Syria with their parents and two older siblings, their home was bombed. Ten days later it was completely destroyed by fire.
The refugee family was resettled in Chattanooga, where they have been rebuilding their lives. Mom, Faihaa, went to work learning English, modeling resiliency and persistence for her four children by walking to Wal-Mart to go shopping and making the hours-long walk-bus-walk journey to English class twice a week.
“It was hard, but I wanted to show my children, ‘Look, I can do it,’” Faihaa says.
For the teens, starting over in a new American home and high school—without fellow Syrians who shared their life experiences—was a difficult transition.
“I used to be quiet,” Yara says. “I didn’t have many friends.”
Last year, Bridge’s Chattanooga office helped the twins apply for RefAmerica, a program designed to help ease Syrian refugee high school students’ transition to the U.S., promote cross-cultural understanding and leadership and enable refugees to share their stories with each other. The competitive program brings teens to Washington, D.C., for one month during the summer, where they stayed with host American families and a mix of Syrian refugee and American-born teens.
“I was nervous,” Yara says—nervous about being so far from home, nervous about meeting new people and, most of all, nervous about telling people the story of her life.
Yazan felt even more trepidation, in the end opting to stay home to work with his father. It was hard on their mother, too, the thought of her kids so far from home.
“I missed her so much,” Faihaa says.
But it was a transformative experience for Yara. She spent the month touring the capitol city, learning how Americans lived and ate, improving her English and connecting with other Syrian refugee youth who became her best friends.
All during that month, the participants worked on their stories, which they presented to the program participants, host families and other guests at the end of their stay.
“It was scary,” Yara says, but she realized how important it was to speak the things she had been holding inside.
“It was heavy on my chest,” she says. “I just wanted to get it out. There are a lot of people who don’t know the truth. I want people to know the truth.”
The program also gave Yara the courage to embrace life back home in Chattanooga.
“I got a lot better talking to people about myself, my life, my religion,” she says. “This year I have a lot of different friends.”
Her experience inspired Yazan to re-apply to RefAmerica this year. He was accepted and will be traveling to Washington, D.C. in June.
“I don’t like people to feel sorry for me,” he says. “But everyone said, ‘You should go, you should go.’”
And even though it is difficult for Faihaa to send her children so far away, she believes the opportunity for cultural integration is important.
“I think (Yara) took a lot of experience for college, experience for the future,” she says.