Meet the Mastos: a Syrian family searching for their place in Middle America

Last year, the Masto family arrived in the United States. They live in Cincinnati, Ohio. But is there a place for them in Trump's America?
September 12, 2017

I first met the Masto family in Lebanon in the spring of 2016. I was reporting on Syrian refugees and met Ibtisam, the mother, at the farmers’ market where she had a stall selling different kinds of kibbeh, the Middle Eastern dish of bulgur wheat pastry, usually stuffed with lamb and onions. She and her six children had fled Jisr al-Shughur, a city in the north of Syria, in 2013 after enduring months of fighting: bodies in the streets, no electricity, scarce food, a kidnap epidemic. Her husband Mohammed worked as a plumber in Lebanon, and after a nail-biting, bone-jarring 24-hour journey of buses and checkpoints, they joined him.

When I met them, they were living in a windowless concrete room in the outskirts of Beirut. They had just been told they were going to be resettled in the United States, but they didn’t yet know which city. They were nervous (and this was pre-Donald Trump) about how a Muslim family would be received. I looked at the family: at the two older girls, Amal and Asmaa, hovering in the doorway in long gowns and headscarves; at their brother Khaled, 14, respectfully bringing my translator and I cups of tea; the two younger girls, Sidra and Israa, trying to suppress their excitement at the visitors; and the littlest, Mohammed-Nour, then only four. They were a pious family; Mohammed had declined to shake my hand and touched his hand to his breast instead. Ibtisam wore a long black coat buttoned to her throat and her headscarf was neatly pleated and pinned around her face. None of them spoke a word of English. I tried to reassure them, but I was worried too. How would this conservative family from a provincial corner of Syria, traumatised by war, manage in the US?

They were sent to Cincinnati, Ohio. We kept in touch. Ibtisam wrote, via Facebook, that the first few months were difficult. They had been put in a house infested with raccoons, in a rough neighbourhood with drug dealers on the corners. When Trump was elected I messaged Ibtisam, sending my love. Google translate rendered a garbled version of her reply: “My children are well placed in school and always marked by excellent grades. Thank God. But I do not know what we do as Muslims. After the elections, Trump and I are afraid.”

In June, a year after the family first arrived in Cincinnati, I went to visit them. They had moved to a slightly better neighbourhood and now lived in a modest two-storey, three-bedroom house on a typical suburban street of similar houses, each with a front lawn and a backyard, a chain-link fence, and a barbecue. I knocked on the door. The windows were curtained. It was Ramadan and dusk, the hour when the fast is broken. The door opened with a burst of laughter. And there was Ibtisam wearing a short-sleeved tunic with pink and blue flowers, grinning broadly.

Listen to Wendell Steavenson discuss the Masto family on Prospect's podcast, Headspace Amal and Asmaa were also bareheaded, though only because they were among family and the guests were women. Khaled and his father wore baggy basketball shorts. I was introduced to two friends: Carol Gates, a local volunteer and Anwar Mhajne, a Palestinian-Israeli graduate student at the University of Cincinnati who helped out with translation. The table was laid with a Syrian feast, Ibtisam’s signature kibbeh, made with a pomegranate molasses sauce. There was stuffed courgettes and vine leaves, salad and lamb. We ate through the mountains of food, talked and laughed. I saw that all the Mastos had put on weight. Everyone was smiling.

*** Barack Obama’s administration increased the annual quota of refugees from 85,000 in 2016 to 110,000 in 2017. After his inauguration, Trump issued his infamous travel ban, affecting seven predominantly-Muslim countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen—for 90 days. He also cut the refugee quota to 50,000 and specifically banned Syrian refugees indefinitely.

Refugee resettlement in the US is overseen by different agencies in different cities. In Cincinnati, it is Catholic Charities. This year they had been prepared to welcome about 450 refugees but, Kelly Anchrum, their Communications Director, told me that due to the travel ban, “we are expecting the numbers to be far less.” In practice, she said, only refugees who can claim a close family tie to someone already in the US are being let in.

In the face of outrage at Trump’s travel ban, multiple legal challenges were immediately mounted and a temporary restraining order was issued against it in February. Trump subsequently issued an amended executive order dropping Iraq from the list and rescinding the indefinite ban on Syrian refugees. This too was prevented from going into effect by a temporary judicial restraining order. In June the Supreme Court issued an interim ruling upholding some of the provisions of the ban and deferred the final decision until this autumn. The status of pre-approved refugees remains caught in the legal muddle. For many, the promised opportunities of America have been put on hold.

Trump’s immigration policy has been accompanied by a rabid “America First,” nativist rhetoric. During his presidential campaign he called for a Muslim registry and a wall along the Mexican border. His rallies were often violent and brawly and his victory seemed to suggest that he had tapped into some kind of popular prejudice with his raving bigotry. Enboldened, far-right groups stepped out of the shadows. In Charlottesville, Virginia in August a member of one of them drove a car into a crowd that had gathered to protest against a far-right rally. One woman was killed in the attack and more than a dozen people injured. In this kind of febrile, polarised atmosphere how would the Mastos fit in?

Each refugee arriving in the US has been subject to thorough vetting (see box overleaf), that can last between two and four years, before they can get on a plane. Their asylum is pre-approved. Despite this, in the aftermath of the 2015 Paris attacks, two dozen American governors—including Ohio’s own, Republican John Kasich, and Indiana’s Mike Pence, who is now Vice President—tried to halt Syrians from being resettled in their states because some of the Paris attackers had reportedly entered Europe posing as Syrian refugees. Ultimately, the governors failed, but controversy flared up. At that time, Anchrum told me, “we got more messages of support and positive calls than ever: people asking, how can I help?”

On arrival in the US, each refugee family is given $1,075 per member by the federal government. In Cincinnati, the Catholic Charities organisation strives to secure employment for refugees within three months. They provide a house with donated furniture, but rent must be paid out of the family’s allocated funds. For three months, English lessons, drivers and translators are provided. After this, the refugees are substantially on their own, although support can continue for several years. They do not have green cards yet, but do have all the rights of citizens except the right to vote. They can, for example, get Medicaid coverage.

Everything is geared around getting a job. All further federal assistance (training or language lessons, for example) are designed with that in mind. “You can’t be paternalistic,” Ted Bergh, the CEO of Catholic Charities, told me, “and do everything for the refugees.” After eight months, a refugee family is expected to begin to repay the travel loan from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which paid their airfare. This mechanism allows them to establish an all-important credit score.

Catholic Charities found Mohammed a job at a vegetable processing plant for $10 an hour. The fumes from the chemicals that were used to wash the vegetables irritated his eyes and after four months he quit. For a while, Amal, aged 20, deemed too old to go to school, was the sole breadwinner, working in a different produce plant. The younger children were in school, but the family felt isolated in a downtrodden neighbourhood. “Everyone was blaming me that I had brought them to this place,” Ibtisam said.

Carol Gates—petite, blonde, 50-something, an empty nester who was already involved in volunteering with Bhutanese refugees—was assigned by Catholic Charities as the Mastos’ driver for their first three months. Cincinnati is green and hilly, a sprawling low-density conurbation connected with looping highways, built for cars, not pedestrians. There are buses, but no metro or train network. Carol ferried the Mastos between schools, work, the Catholic Charities HQ, language classes and shops. But she found the family needed more than transport. Without English it was almost impossible for them to navigate the bureaucracy of medical forms, tax returns, driving licences, electricity bills and social security.

Carol incurred the opprobrium of Catholic Charities for continuing to help the Mastos after three months. She was a hand to hold but, more importantly, a friend. Her presence said: you are not alone here. She became part of the family. The Masto children called her their “other mother.” “When Carol went on holiday,” Ibtisam told me, only half joking, “I almost had a nervous breakdown.”

Carol was not the only local helping the new arrivals. Several Arab-Americans, like Anwar, served as translators. I talked to one, Basma Akbik, a Syrian-American whose husband, also Syrian-American, is a doctor who takes a medical team and supplies to treat Syrian refugees in Jordan several times a year. Basma was volunteering as a translator at a hospital when she met Ibtisam.

“I don’t know if it was her Aleppo accent, which is my mother’s city,” Basma told me, “but I gave her my phone number. I wanted to help, I saw a lot of potential in her.” The two women have since begun to set up a catering company together, harnessing Ibtisam’s cooking skills. Basma had bought equipment and invested in a website. They had done several jobs, one of which involved catering a party for a businessman who had been thrilled to employ a Syrian and welcomed them warmly. When Ibtisam asked to meet his wife, he pointed to a man and said, “actually it’s that guy in the suit.” Basma told me that Ibtisam had been taken aback, but that she had impressed upon her that this was America: you had to accept and respect everyone. Ibtisam had thought about it and agreed, yes, they were a very friendly couple, even if they were gay.

Trump’s blowhard xenophobia has given free rein to pockets of racism, but it has also created stiff resistance. Democratic politicians all over the country have rebutted his policies with declarations of noncompliance. In January, the Democratic mayor declared Cincinnati a “sanctuary city,” which meant that along with others—New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco—it would not enforce federal laws against undocumented illegal immigrants.

I found Cincinnati (a city that voted for Hillary Clinton in the presidential contest, but Republican in Senate and Congressional races) a more multiculturally-tolerant place than its red-state midwest profile would suggest. Basma told me that as a Syrian-American and a Muslim she had been heartened that after the travel ban, several conservative right-wing parents at her son’s private Catholic high school sent her messages of support and solidarity. In February, when tensions were running high, Catholic Charities brought together an interfaith coalition at events to challenge, explain and refute the fear of refugees.

“It’s not only what our faith tells us we should do,” Bergh told me, “it’s what America is about, it is what the Statue of Liberty stands as a symbol of: helping people in trouble.” It was a sentiment I heard echoed at local church groups, and mosques and many volunteer organisations in the Cincinnati area, who were all helping to support refugees. And it was a sentiment echoed by the outpouring of condemnation, overt and tacit, from business groups, the leaders of the Armed Services and Republicans after Trump said that there were some “very fine people” among the neo-Nazi groups that rallied in Charlottesville. Despite the electoral attraction of Trump’s drain-the-Washington-swamp message, it increasingly seems that his anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, anti-Muslim rhetoric has less appeal than we once feared.

I went with the Mastos to the Clifton Mosque to mark the end of Ramadan. The imam, Ismaeel Chartier, is a big, red-headed Irish-American former wrestler from Hell’s Kitchen in New York. He greeted Trump’s inauguration by declaring the mosque a sanctuary building for undocumented migrants. (He later had to qualify this when Hispanics worried that the mosque could become a target in its own right.) Ibtisam enthusiastically pointed out the multiethnic congregation, “every people from every area, every country!” Africans in brightly coloured robes, Yemenis with tasseled turbans, Libyans in white-knit prayer caps. The women’s balcony was a riot of multicoloured prints and sequined scarves. After the prayers, there was coffee and donuts and then a barbecue. The kids jumped on the bouncy castle, Amal and Asmaa met up with other teenage girls. Ibtisam introduced me to her friends, a mix of Middle Eastern accents. “Faith brings people together,” said one woman, originally from Morocco. I got talking to an elderly African-American man. He had been dismayed at Trump’s anti-Muslim stance, but was heartened that so many officials and ordinary people had stood up against his ban. He waved his hand over the mingling throng, “this is what America should be,” he said.

The mosque was a happy example of multiculturalism, under the roof of one religion. Amal, the eldest daughter, admitted that it was not always easy to wear the hijab on the bus. “People say the not-good word.” She wouldn’t tell me what that word was. The longer I spent with the Mastos and other Syrian refugees, the more I appreciated the deep and disquieting alienation they experienced.

“My kids are not mine, they will be American”
One day Mohammed asked me why Mexicans worked so hard. I had to think carefully how to answer. I said maybe it was because Mexicans chose to come to America, that they came to work and that many Mexicans had come before so they probably knew what to expect. As I said this I realised that a refugee has made no such choice. They have been forced to leave their country. The Mastos didn’t want to come to America. For them resettlement was not just about figuring out practicalities, but a more profound reckoning with identity.

Mohammed had found it the most difficult. After he quit his first job, he got another at a different vegetable processing factory, but he clashed with his supervisor who apparently wouldn’t rotate him off celery, a repetitive, heavy-lifting job. The day before I arrived he had been fired; the exact circumstances were a bit confused. He has another job now, but Ibtisam told me she worried that her husband felt he could not find his place in America. “He shouts and the Americans don’t understand that this is just his normal way of speaking.” Mohammed told me he was frustrated he could not work as a plumber without the language.

“What can I do?” He spread his hands wide in a gesture of fatalism. “I am illiterate even in Arabic.” We were sitting in his backyard; Anwar was translating. Fireflies flashed in the gloaming. Mohammed recounted a litany of disappointments and slights. “My kids are not mine, they will be American,” he said. “I am convinced I won’t live long. I am 50, perhaps I have 20 years left. I am close to the cemetery.” He closed his eyes and his chin dropped to his chest. A long painful silence ensued. When he looked up again he said, “I want to be independent and to support my family and live in dignity. Every father wants the best for their children and if they can’t give them this, they might as well commit suicide.”

*** The children were doing well in school and picking up English. After just a year, little Mohammed-Nour, now six, spoke with a shy American accent. He told me he loved to hear stories about Syria because he didn’t remember it. “When I get a green card, I will go to Syria!” His older sisters were haltingly conversant, and Ibtisam talked a mile a minute in a mix of broken English, hand gestures and frequent recourse to Google translate. But Mohammed’s outbursts of anger affected the whole family. He had recently confiscated the girls’ mobile phones. “I saw them do something not acceptable.” When I asked him how he would navigate being the Muslim father of four daughters in a society with different moral principles, he replied severely, “It doesn’t matter if we are in the US or on the moon, traditions are traditions.”

Anxiety and trauma manifested themselves in a profusion of health conditions among the family. Mohammed had type 2 diabetes, which recently led his doctor to advise him to give up on his Ramadan fast. Amal and Asmaa were both being treated for depression. Asmaa had suffered catatonic fits. Amal had been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a nasty bowel condition exacerbated by stress. “Every day,” she told me, “I have to take eight tablets.” But it wasn’t all bad news. Carol had persisted when they were told Amal was “too old,” and found a way for her to enrol in high school with her younger siblings. She loved her English teacher, and talked hopefully about college.

Carol drove them all between doctors’ appointments. Mohammed had to be hospitalised with high blood pressure. Israa fell off a running machine. Ibtisam needed minor surgery, got glasses with the wrong prescription, complained of headaches. At the end of the summer she lost her job at an industrial sewing factory after disappearing for too many medical appointments.

The Mastos’ favourite nurse-practitioner, Denise Pattison, young, energetic and sympathetic, told me she had treated Syrian refugees for everything from insomnia to poorly-healed bullet wounds. She saw a lot of refugees—Somalis, Congolese, Ethiopians as well as trafficked women from Honduras and El Salvador—with problems aggravated by stress and trauma. She told me that it was hard for the Masto girls to understand that they were still suffering the damage of war, and that their mental anguish was not somehow their own fault or a punishment.

During Ramadan, the Syrian refugees visited each other’s houses each night to eat. The women sat at one end of the room, the men at the other, smoking and talking, occasionally calling out for tea. The kids ran about, the adults worried. One woman was on dialysis and needed a kidney transplant; she missed the sons she had to leave in Turkey. The men complained about their low-paid jobs, and I marvelled one afternoon to see Ibtisam lecture them on the American work ethic.

Ibtisam was determined to have her own restaurant. It was unclear if she would try to make the catering company work with Basma. She said that coming to America had been harder than she had thought, “but I am happy because the kids have more opportunities. My happiness is my kids.” The Mastos’ experience, despite Trump, echoed that of waves of refugees and immigrants that had come before them. Hope was invested in the second generation. When I checked back in with them at the end of the summer, Carol wrote that Ibtisam had begun helping out more recently arrived Syrian refugees, by driving them around and giving advice. Ibtisam missed her yellow kitchen in Jisr al-Shughur with a view of the river, but the mighty Ohio and the greenness of Cincinnati reminded her of home. And when she said “Cincinnati” she pronounced it with a perfect sing-song midwest accent.

Wendell Steavenson’s most recent book is “Circling the Square: Stories from the Egyptian Revolution”