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This Is How One Group In Baltimore Is Helping Syrian Refugees Start Over In America

The executive director of the resettlement program says he wants Americans to know that the refugees they see in the media once "led lives much like our own."

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Ali and Amina had built a happy life for themselves in their home country of Syria. As Ali owned his own furniture store, the couple and their five daughters enjoyed a middle-class lifestyle. However, one thing was missing: a son to complete their family.

So, the couple was overjoyed when Amina gave birth to their sixth child, a little boy, in 2012. But soon after his birth, their baby son was killed when their hospital was bombed -- another casualty of Syria's long-running civil war.

Their son's death was the final straw for the family, according to refugee advocates who shared their story with BuzzFeed News. They realized they had to leave, and relocated to neighboring Lebanon.

After struggling to make ends meet in Lebanon, even with the help of aids groups, the family soon came to the realization that they would never be able to rebuild their lives in their homeland.

"They made a really difficult decision to leave the region," Ruben Chandrasekar, the executive director of the International Rescue Committee's resettlement program in Baltimore, told BuzzFeed News.

Ali and Amina went through a screening process, and were given two choices for resettlement: the Netherlands or the United States. They chose the U.S., thinking they would have more opportunities in America.

Six months ago, the family arrived in Baltimore. They didn't speak English, and faced the daunting task of rebuilding their lives from scratch in a foreign land.

"They have lost a lot," said Chandrasekar. "They never thought they would be in these circumstances."

The family is one of approximately 20 families from Syria that Chandrasekar and his team at the IRC in Baltimore have resettled in the past year.

The IRC works with the U.S. government in 22 cities across the country to help resettle refugees from countries all over the world. Having been operational since 1999, the Baltimore field office has resettled approximately 15,000 people in the city in the past 15 years.

As the crisis in Syria worsened and ISIS began its takeover in the region, Chandrasekar said his office saw an uptick in refugees from Iraq and Syria. Now, he and other refugee advocates find themselves in the center of a debate as to whether the U.S. and Europe should accept more refugees from Syria as millions flee their homeland.

Despite the worsening crisis causing more than four million people to flee Syria, the U.S. has resettled just 1,500 Syrian refugees in the past five years -- a figure described by Chandrasekar as paltry.

To apply for refugee protection, families or individuals must pass multiple different screenings and procedures, and even then they may not be accepted.

If a family is selected to resettle the U.S., Chandrasekar's team and others like it help the new arrivals find their feet in what can seem like a strange, new land.

First, advocates contact any family or friends the refugees may have in America, and press them for details on the family's living preferences. They then set up the family with a home -- even greeting them at the airport to ensure as smooth a transition as possible.

Chandrasekar said his team's number one focus, though, is helping the family find employment. Refugees attend cultural orientation seminars and sit with caseworkers to see what sort of job they may be able to do.

In this sense, Syrian refugees are a little different from some other refugee groups, according to Chandrasekar. Refugees from poorer, war-torn countries, such as Chad, usually spend years living in camps, and some come to America with little to no work experience or skills.

However, many Syrians are well-educated professionals, who once lived a middle-class before their country descended into chaos. While their work experience can make things easier, it can also be uniquely challenging for the Syrians to adapt.

"Some of them were engineers or doctors in their countries, and they come here and they have to work in a restaurant," he said. "It kind of takes the wind out of their sails when reality sets in, but they know they have to do what they have to do for their family."

Ali and Amina are a good example of this phenomenon. Chandrasekar said Ali is working on earning his American driver's license, and hopes to become a chauffeur driver. But it's not the same as owning his own business back home."Ali owned a business, and we can't set him up with a business," Chandrasekar said. "But we try to find a job that can pay his bills."

For Chandrasekar, his work can often be intensely personal. He often finds himself empathizing with those he's helping, and with a wife and a son of his own, he said he struggles to imagine how difficult it would be to flee the U.S. to start over in a new land. "If I had to flee with my wife or 7-year-old as a refugee and then I had the opportunity to work and buy my son a pair of shoes, how motivated would I be to do that?" he said.

Chandrasekar said refugees can help the U.S. by bringing new life and diversity to cities. He said Baltimore officials have been extremely receptive to allowing refugees in. "They have come here and they stayed and they are helping to rebuild the tax base," he said.

As the Syrian refugee crisis worsens, the IRC is calling on the U.S. government to make big changes on how it is addressing the humanitarian disaster. The IRC is asking the U.S. to accept 65,000 Syrians by the end of 2016. "We should also be nimble enough as a country to recognize really significant conflicts in this world and provide a safe haven," Chandrasekar said.

In addition, the IRC is hoping to work with the government to create a program that would allow highly skilled refugees, such as doctors or lawyers, to easily transfer their certifications to the U.S. "New immigrants bring new energies and have the ability to revitalize our communities and our economies," Chandrasekar said.

Chandrasekar said Americans should realize that a lot of the Syrian migrants they are seeing in the news lived similar lives just five years ago. "They led lives much like our own," he said. "These unfortunate circumstances have driven them from their home."

Stephanie McNeal is a social news editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Stephanie McNeal at stephanie.mcneal@buzzfeed.com.

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