When Abdulrahman Zetoun heard he’d be moving to Fort Worth, he had one basic image in his head.
“Cowboys,” he said, laughing. “But we were happy, too. It was like, OK, we’ll get a hat, get a horse, it’s not a problem, you know?”
I met Zetoun and his mother Mazek Al-Hafiz at their modest but tidy apartment in South Fort Worth. She was watching the news in Arabic. Zetoun made strong Syrian coffee. The two arrived in January with his older brother and five-year-old nephew, who has epilepsy – they live in the same apartment complex, two buildings over.
While world leaders scramble to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis, just a handful have landed in the United States so far. The Obama administration announced plans to accept tens of thousands more in the next few years, but so far just 19 families have settled into North Texas.
Zetoun is 20 years old, tall, fit and confident. He’s been in Fort Worth for less than a year, and he’s on his second job. The first, at Wal-Mart, wasn’t great, he says. Now he’s working for a company that installs security cameras, and he’s taking community college classes. It’s a very American lifestyle, he says – work, classes, homework, sleep, repeat. His priorities have changed since the Syrian conflict began four years ago.
“Before the war – I‘m going to be honest with you – I was lazy. I just wanted to party, I don’t want to study, I want to be with my friends, I want to hang out. But the war teach you. Teach you that time is important, your family is very important, you must study, you must work.”
Now, the family is scattered all over the world. His mother lists the places where her children and her siblings live now: Germany, Canada, Egypt, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and more. “They’re everywhere,” she says.
Mazek al-Hafiz was an elementary school teacher in Damascus – a widow who raised five kids. Her husband, Zetoun’s father, died a few years before the conflict started. She taught pretty much every subject except for English. She regrets that now, Zetoun tells me.
When she gets a call from her sister in Egypt and leaves the room, Zetoun says he worries his mother is isolated; she doesn’t know anyone here, and her sons are too busy to spend much time with her.
I ask her if she wants to go back to Syria. She says, with her son translating, that she prays that she could. But more than anything, she wants her family to be back together again, whether or not it’s in Syria.
Zetoun says there’s nothing to go back to. Their house was destroyed years ago when the government bombed their neighborhood.
In Damascus, they moved in with his aunt, until her house was destroyed too. When Zetoun was told he would be conscripted into the military, they decided to leave. They told government soldiers at checkpoints they were going on vacation before he enlisted. They went first to Lebanon, then flew to Turkey, with little more than a suitcase full of clothes.
“America right now, it’s my home,” Zetoun says. “And Syria’s my home. But there’s nothing left there. Like, our house is destroyed and literally there’s nothing. “
Abdulrahman Zetoun says he won’t be able to think about going back to Syria until it’s peaceful, until there’s a new government in place. But he’s not waiting for that. Texas, he says, is his opportunity, and he doesn’t want to waste it.