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The United States of Resettlement

In Florida, Syrians Try to Make a Home Among Cuban Refugees

Florida has been an important home to Cuban refugees for generations. As Cuban arrivals dwindled last year, hundreds of Syrians were resettled in the state, and some are struggling to integrate into Spanish-speaking communities.

Written by Kat Zhang Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Us candle light vigil held for journalist stephen sotloff execut
Syrian residents of Orlando hold a candle light vigil held for killed journalist Stephen Sotloff in 2014. Gerardo Mora/Getty Images/AFP

“It’s difficult to live without language,” says Kamar Asghar, a 27-year-old Syrian refugee who arrived in Florida’s Miami-Dade County one year ago with her husband and children.

She was planning to improve her English skills upon resettlement to the U.S., but once in Florida, she realized that many local people spoke Spanish, which was even more difficult for her and her family to understand.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian war, the number of Syrian refugees resettled in Florida has grown significantly. In the last financial year, the Obama administration pushed for at least 10,000 Syrians to be resettled in the U.S. Almost 800 Syrian refugees relocated to Florida last year, compared to 151 in 2015.

There were not many Arabic-speaking refugees in Florida before the Syrians arrived. Since 2002, about 47,000 refugees have come to Florida. Many of them were Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Colombians.

According to 2015 census, there are more than 900,000 Cubans in the Miami-Dade region, approximately 35 percent of the total population. In contrast, the Syrian community in Miami area remains relatively small – approximately 3,000 people before the recent arrivals.

Changing Patterns

Large numbers of Cubans have been coming to the U.S. since the 1959 revolution – there are approximately 2 million people with Cuban ancestry in the country today. The U.S. has long had specific immigration policies for Cubans, allowing many to receive permanent residence under the refugee category.

As the number of Syrians rose, the number of Cuban refugees arriving in Florida has dwindled from over 2,000 in 2015 to 243 last year.

(Kat Zhang)

Then in January 2017, the Obama administration ended a decade-old special immigration policy for Cubans, which allowed Cuban migrants who reached U.S. soil to stay, whether or not they had visas.

Amilkar* and his family arrived in Florida two years ago, with the help of the state’s Department of Children and Families Refugee Services Program (DCF). The 17-year-old Cuban enrolled in a local high school and is preparing to apply for college. Amilkar’s father works at a local copy shop, and his mother stays at home to take care of his younger siblings.

Amilkar’s mother is pregnant, and he says the family have been waiting for three months to move from their two-bed walkup in Miami-Dade to a three-bedroom apartment with an elevator, to accommodate the growing family.

“It’s difficult to find a place we can afford by ourselves,” Amilkar said. He wants his own bedroom to concentrate on his studies.

His family and other Cuban refugee families said they feel that since more Syrian refugees have arrived, they receive less resources and attention. “The agency gives more resources to them,” said Amilkar. “We know that they just found a place for another Syrian family, but they didn’t respond to us in three months.”

Isolated by Language

Meanwhile, the Asghars are struggling to settle into Spanish-speaking areas of Florida. They have work permits, Medicaid and an apartment west of Miami-Dade. But it took them three months to find a public school for their children, who had limited English and education.

Kamar and her husband didn’t know how to buy a bus fare, much less how to navigate routes. A year after arriving, she has started English classes. It has been hard for her to find a job because many require English or Spanish skills.

They don’t have any relatives or close friends in Miami. “We are thinking of moving to California,” Asghar said. She has several friends in California who have offered to help them settle in and find work. But since their children are finally enrolled in local schools in Florida, she is concerned that moving might affect their studies.

For now, the family lives on cash assistance and food stamps from the resettlement agency, and her husband’s minimum-wage dishwashing job. “He can find a good job in California, ” she says hopefully.

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